Saturday 31 March 2012

Postcard from Tel Aviv

I need to start with a confession. I absolutely LOVE Tel Aviv. I LOVE it. I love almost everything about it. I love the crowds, I love the noise, I love the cafes, I love the architecture, I love the history, I love the modernity and most of all, I love the people.

Israelis are great story tellers and I like stories. People here tell you things you would never get told in London. For example, my taxi driver on the way from Ben Gurion airport to my hotel. Let's call him Dudi  in case anyone he knows is reading. 

He wasn't always a taxi driver. He once owned a successful cafe in the the Dizengoff Centre in Tel Aviv. It was very successful until the worst days of the first intifada when the customers stopped coming, somewhat reasonably as shopping centres were prime targets for suicide bombings day after day. Dudi is entrepreneurial. Before the cafe he had a bar in Netanya for five years. He told me he spent most of that time drunk or in a smoke induced haze. He still likes to drink a little and smoke a little, and overdid it a friend's party at Purim. This was some party since a famous film and TV actress turned up with a surprise present for his friend - a massive reefer - do people still use that word? I couldn't possibly name her but she's a bit of a favourite of mine.

Now you might think Dudi is a bit of a waster, but actually he's not. He told me he is searching for something, that he knows something is missing. He is looking for whatever this thing is through study of Kabbalah. He studies as part of a group and says he feels calmer since he joined. Unfortunately at the Purim party Dudi got too friendly with a lady from his group and now worries he is the subject of gossip amongst his fellow students. It is, he says, "a balagan". Balagan is not a Hebrew word, its probably Arabic and it means a big mess. I like this word. It sounds like what it means. Poor Dudi. Another group perhaps? (Update - balagan is a Russian word, meaning "brothel" - thanks Osnat - no news of Dudi though!)

My hotel is the fabulous Center Hotel on Zamenhof. I have been staying here for several years. I love it. Its a great central location, the staff are very friendly and its been renovated since I was last here. Its in a great Bauhaus building on Kikar Dizengoff (Dizengoff Circus to you). Meir Dizengoff was the first Mayor of Tel Aviv and had a major role in developing the city. Zamenhof invented Esperanto. 

I said I love the cafes and I do. My favourite has always been the Dizengoff branch of Cafe Idelson. Nice, light and modern on the ground floor of a two story building on Dizengoff, it has the best cakes in Tel Aviv - in my expert opinion. I nearly always have the pistachio mousse with black cherries together with a very strong coffee. Alternatively, I have been known to be tempted by the passion fruit cheesecake. Staff are friendly and helpful and are usually able to spot people like me who would take the rest of their lives to manage the Hebrew version of the menu.

Another little gem is Cafe Mersand on the junction of Frishman and Ben Yehuda streets. You can almost smell the sea from the pavement tables - its a three minute walk away. Cafe Mersand is a little run down and attracts a young(ish) Bohemian Tel Aviv crowd, but it also has an interesting story attached to it. For many years, a group of Yekkes ladies (that's middle class German speaking Jews who mostly came here in the 1920's and 1930's, in case you don't know) have gathered here on Friday mornings to drink coffee, eat strudel and talk about their children, their grand children and perhaps also about darker times in the past. 

They are very neat ladies, with proper attire, jackets (yekkes!), careful hair and make-up and with the type of manners that you don't see anywhere else these days. They speak German with each other. It is not unusual to hear German spoken here, but mainly by tourists. For some reason Germans like to come here, perhaps they have heard about the ladies. But a few years ago I noticed that when German tourists came to the Mersand on the Friday morning and looked in the direction of the ladies, they switched to Hebrew. There are fewer ladies each year, and as they leave us a little piece of Tel Aviv leaves with them.

The Yekkes helped create a vibrant cafe society in Tel Aviv (and elsewhere in Israel) and it would not have been unusual to find the likes of actress Hanna Rovina, poets Shlonsky and Bialik, artists Rubin and Gutman drinking, debating, planning new projects and dreaming together in the years before the second world war. It occurred to me on this visit that cafes are again becoming creative places, but in a different way. Many Tel Aviv cafes offer free wi-fi and you can see Tel Avivian coffee drinkers bashing away on their laptops just about everywhere. Doubtless some of this is "business" but I am sure there are also poets, novelists and playwrights amongst them...

I like to find new cafes to visit and followed a friend's recommendation to try Cafe Gidi also on Frishman. Its a small cafe with a tiny front terrace facing onto the main road but also with a little patio garden at the back with several tables, a number of interesting lamps, shady trees, a pond and some garden gnomes. Not surprisingly, Cafe Gidi also has a story. Gidi is the son of one Aba Dill, an Afghan Jew who came to Eretz Israel in 1935 aged 16. Aba learned how to make lampshades and soon established a workshop in the Florentin district of the city. Son Gidi joined him and eventually took over the business, opening "The House of Lamps" store in Ramat Gan in 1976. After many years, and struggling to compete with mass produced imports, Gidi closed the business and reinvested instead in a "house of coffee". The lampshades you can see here are from the old days.

Something else I love about Tel Aviv is the easy access to really high quality live music. In just a few days here I have been spoiled for choice. On Wednesday night I enjoyed an Ethiopian influenced jazz concert at the Hasimta Theatre in Jaffa. The theatre is primarily a venue for drama but has a weekly jazz night. It is an atmospheric space with the audience seated at little tables in a dark, cave-like room built deep into the walls of old Jaffa. The quintet - Shabate - demonstrate the diversity of Israeli society, the sax playing vocalist is Ethiopian, at least two of the group are Mizrachi and three are "religious". Their set was interesting. They began with a very cool, almost Brazilian sounding jazz number before delving into more African sounds and even a jazz version of a traditional Pesach song, all with sudden changes in rhythm and direction.

Last night I went to Levontin 7, another small venue, this time in a basement in the Florentin district of the city. I have been here before - I was lucky enough to see Maurice el Medioni and Omri Mor perform "Oriental" piano three years ago, and still get goose pimples thinking about it. This time it was another pianist - Yonatan Avichai. Yonatan has played with most of the top Israeli jazz groups, but this was a solo performance. He played continuously for over an hour, mixing free form jazz, with modern classical music and managing to knit in some jazz standards including "I've got it bad and that ain't good" and a pretty wild version of "Alexander's ragtime band".  Levontin 7 is a very intimate venue and the audience is very close to the artist. I could hear Yonatan making those strange grunting noises pianists often make and see very clearly his changing facial expressions. Playing a musical instrument is an intensely physical exercise for some musicians. It was a great performance and a somewhat emotional and very tired looking Yonatan treated us to a borderline camp version of "La vie en rose" as an encore. And of course, we loved it!

More to come...

Sunday 25 March 2012

Two nights at the theatre - The Master and Margarita at the Barbican and Purge at the Arcola

Is it just me or is there some extra special drama on the London stage at the moment? Having recently seen "Collaborators" at the National, I have developed a bit of a Soviet theme, seeing Theatre de Complicite's stunning dramatisation of Bulgakov's novel, "The Master and Margarita"at the Barbican, and the deeply disturbing "Purge" by Finnish writer Sofi Oksanen at the new Arcola in Dalston.

The plays are set in different times - "The Master" in Moscow in 1938 at the height of the Soviet period and works through themes of good and evil, truth and lies. Bulgakov particularly attacks the "middle class" of the Soviet empire in the form of the literary club "MASSOLIT" whose members routinely accommodated the excesses of the regime to make sure their own substandard work was published, more interesting work suppressed and that they held on to the material luxuries forbidden to most of their countrymen.

"Purge" is somewhat different. Set in post Soviet Estonia, it examines the impact of decades of violence and oppression, the appalling choices faced by ordinary people and the terrible compromises some made with the regime in order to survive. This reaches its zenith in the description of main character Aliide's enforced participation in the torture of her 10 year old niece in 1947 and her subsequent denouncement of her own sister because she could no longer face her. Aliide's speech about making compromises with the regime in order to survive, whatever that regime might be, sums up the choices faced by many people under totalitarian regimes of all hues.

The physical staging of the two productions could not be less alike. "The Master" is played at the Barbican. Full use is made of the large stage with stunning backdrops, technology and music. "Purge" can be seen in the very small studio at the Arcola, the actors very close to the audience and with minimal staging  - all of the action taking place with a single backdrop apart from a short use of video at the beginning of the play.

Both plays are dark but have have moments of comedy. In "The Master" Woland, and his entourage engage directly with the audience, Koroviev even leaving the stage to examine the attire of women in the front row, suggesting they are wearing expensive designer clothes until he stops in front of one women to say "oh yes, Primark". In "Purge" Allida, - is asked by her unexpected visitor, Zara, why there is excrement on her windows. Aliide replies "Well that's what happens in the country". We later find out its been thrown there by neighbours who know that Aliide's late husband was an informer for the Soviet regime and her words take on a darker meaning.

Both plays consider redemption. In "The Master and Margarita", Margarita and her lover are reunited after his death and her pact with Woland, who may or may not be the devil, although they are not allowed full daylight, they are granted peace. Aliide's redemption or purging, is one of flames - she douses herself and her home in paraffin and strikes a match, but only once she has made sure her niece's daughter is safe and has a new future.

There are also flames in "The Master" when the banned novelist Ivan Nikolayevich Bezdomny, Margarita's lover, burns his own work - the manuscript of the novel within the novel, (or in this case the play within the play) about Pilate and Yeshua, set in Jerusalem and used to illustrate ideas of censorship and power throughout history. Woland restores his work to him saying "Manuscripts don't burn". This is perhaps the best known phrase from Bulgakov's novel and affirms the ability of art to outlast political regimes. This is somewhat ironic given that the book remained unpublished throughout his life. He died in 1940, aged just 48with no indication that the book would ever see the light of day. It remained at least partly suppressed in the Soviet Union until 1973.

I loved the new Arcola. Its in a section of the old paint factory in what is becoming a very "happening" part of Dalston, adjacent to a bohemian cafe/ bar and just across the road from Dalston's trendy new library. The theatre has retained several of the features of the building including the fantastic kiosk that is used as the ticket office, whilst the tiny cafe is furnished with great old, somewhat "distressed" tables, chairs and lamps. Good coffee too.

The Arcola has another interesting play coming, called " A Warsaw Melody" playing for one month from the end of March. Written by Leonid Zorin in 1967, it is a romance between a Russian man and a Polish woman during Stalin's reign. The theme continues...

Tuesday 6 March 2012

Cairo - looking for a lost city

I have written here and here about my visit to Eritrea in 2010 At the time, the quickest way to get to Eritrea was to fly with Egyptian Airlines via Cairo. I decided that this was too good an opportunity to miss and spent a few days in Cairo on the way home.

Yes, I visited the pyramids, the Egyptian Museum, the Citadel, mosques and other "normal" tourist attractions, but I went to Cairo to search for a different part of this enormous city's history. I had read several books about Cairo in the first half of the 20th century when it was an extremely cosmopolitan city, peopled by Greeks, Italians, Armenians and Jews as well as Arabs and a whole range of other peoples. This was the city of Naguib Mahfouz, the city with a thriving cafe society, with exquisite art deco and art nouveau buildings, and the city of great musicians and singers such as Layla Murad, Oum Kalthoum and Abdel Wahab.

As I expected, much of this Cairo had long since disappeared. The population is much less diverse due to many "foreigners" being driven out during the 1950's and 60's and a growing intolerance of minority groups. The grand buildings from this period are for the most part neglected and the cafes were a shadow of the delights described in the novels of Mahfouz. But despite this, there were glimpses of times gone by and now more than ever, I am glad that I took what might have been the last opportunity for some time, to enjoy them.

One of my lasting memories of the city will be the deafening noise and the incredible mass of people who flood the city streets from early in the morning until very late at night. It was not unusual to see families with small children promenading along the main shopping streets of Cairo as late as midnight and beyond. The streets in the downtown area where I stayed were full of shops selling clothes, fabrics, food, shoes, books, electronic equipment, assorted junk and just about anything you might ever want or need. As well as the shops, there were hundreds of street traders setting up stall on the kerb side again selling all manner of things, including impromptu book stalls with huge collections of books and magazines in Arabic, CDs, DVDs, watches and a variety of gadgets.

So, what did I find in my search for an earlier time? Well I found my hotel to begin with. The Talisman Hotel de Charme, which sits on the upper floors of a belle époque building at 39 Sharia Halat Tarb. Wonderfully decorated in North African style, it was friendly, had a great little library and computer lounge, offered advice on how best to reach different places and which taxis to use or avoid, was spotlessly clean and best of all, was managed (owned?) by a fearsome French speaking woman of a certain age, dressed in black sheath dresses, hair in a chignon and eyebrows plucked within a quarter of an inch of their lives.

Each morning at breakfast there was a sweet smile and "Bonjour" from madame, but the darker side was also visible. The breakfast room staff were young, uniformed Egyptian men. If she thought they were talking to each other too much or was displeased with the positioning of a single item on the tables, one of the thin eyebrows would arch and a particular look would be given to the nearest employee, who knowing she meant business would instantly correct the fault. They really don't make them like that anymore. Sadly.

The hotel was accessed either by a lung squeezing walk up a very impressive staircase with art nouveau metalwork or in a fantastic lift with the old style metal draw-across gate. The lift carried an interesting notice. "Dear guests, please note, the hotel does not employee a lift attendant. Anyone claiming to be the attendant is not the attendant and should not be given money". Very entrepreneurial. I like it.

The downtown area was the focus of my evening explorations and of the third day I spent in Cairo. For the first two days I took a driver and a guide to help me navigate the city, to get as quickly as possible from one place to another in order to maximise the time and to help me survive the robust harassment at the major tourist sites. It felt like a good plan, but I hadn't bargained for being harassed by the guide who also snook in a few visits to see "a demonstration" of carpet making, papyrus manufacturing and a range of other attempts at getting me to part with my hard earned money for stuff I didn't want. He eventually got the message when I told him I didn't want to see demonstrations of anything and if I wanted to buy any presents, it wouldn't be at any of these places. Best to be clear I always find.

But back to the down town exploration. I had read a lot about this area. Once heavily populated by Europeans, it is still home to some very fine, albeit neglected buildings. Their names evoke days long gone by, for example the former Cicurel and Ades department stores on 26th July Street and Sharia Emad El-din respectively. The Ades building  (pictured below) is particularly striking with its stylish corner tower and art deco features. Both were formerly owned by Jewish families, originating from Izmir (Cicurel family) and Aleppo (Ades family). Both were confiscated by the Egyptian government following the 1957 Suez crisis.

Cairo by Yekkes
Former Ades department store
The Trieste Building in Sharia Qasr el-Nil is an art nouveau influenced building designed by Antonio Lasciac, for the Assicurazioni Generali Trieste insurance company. Lasciac is a wonderful example of the former cosmopolitan nature of this city, an Italian-Egyptian architect, born in Trieste, he was responsible for several buildings in Cairo and this one has been described as being neo-Islamic in style. There are beautiful ceramic tiles on the front of the building bearing its name.

Not too far away, you can find the Yacoubian Building at 34 Talaat Harb, next door to the art deco Miami Theatre. It was built by Armenian businessman Hagop Yacoubian in 1934. The building, whose inhabitants were the subject of Alaa Al-Aswany's book of the same name, was once the home to wealthy business owners, foreigners and government ministers. This all changed with the 1952 revolution that deposed King Farouk and eventually put Gamal Abdel Nasser into power. Many of the former residents fled (or had to flee) the country and the building became home to military officers and their families. The rooftop spaces which feature significantly in the book were initially intended as storage areas but over several years have developed into living places - in effect, a roof top shanty town. The excellent  book is a microcosm of Egyptian society, tackling subjects as diverse as Islamic fundamentalism, corruption and homosexuality, illustrating the hopes and fears of the building's residents. The 2006 award winning film of the book, directed by Marawan Hamed is also well worth a viewing.

Nobel Prize winning author, Naguib Mahfouz, one of my all time favourite writers explores these themes across his many books. His most famous work - the Cairo trilogy (Sugar Street, Palace of Desire and Palace Walk) follows the changing fortunes of the Al Jawad family from the beginning of the 20th century to the 1950's. The trilogy begins with the unquestioned authority of the patriarch Ahmad, the stirrings of rebellion amongst his sons as the Egyptians protest against British influence, the development of new and warring political groupings and pressure for social change. As the story develops we see Ahmed's power wane, his wife's authority increase and his sons take differing routes including taking on some of their apparently pious father's penchants for drinking, visiting prostitutes and indulging in a range of vices. Mahfouz' descriptions of the descent into old age and infirmity is extremely touching as Ahmad comes to realise that his power has gone.

Like many of his books, the Cairo Trilogy shows the less pretty side of Cairene life, but perhaps his most notorious work was Midaq Alley, named after and based on the inhabitants of, a back street in the city. The list of characters includes an hashish selling cafe owner who has a predilection for young men, a self-proclaimed dentist who sells false teeth sourced from dead bodies, a matchmaker, a baker who beats her husband with her slippers, a politician, a pimp and a beautiful young woman dreaming of a better life. Its a great story, sad and funny, and a good introduction to the type of characters Mahfouz draws so well.

Mahfouz was an habitué of many of Cairo's cafes. Coffee was introduced to Egypt from Yemen in the middle ages and has been popular ever since. There are literally hundreds of "ahwas" in Cairo - holes in the wall coffee houses where men sit and talk, drink, and play board games. Some ahwas are a little more sophisticated and Mahfouz' favourite was Al-Fishawis in Khan el-Khalili (pictured below). Al-Fishawis has high ceilings, tall mirrors, battered old furniture, a little corner dedicated to the writer and his friends and still serves a great cup of Arabic coffee with a small plate of baklava and other sweets. I spent a short time there and was happy to note that amongst the tourists, there were still many Cairenes (men and women). I was fascinated by a woman in a bright purple outfit with richly hennaed hair peeping from under her hijab.

Cairo by Yekkes
El-Fishawy cafe
The European communities left their mark on cafe society in Cairo, with the formerly Swiss owned Groppi's at Midaan Talat Harb once being the preferred cafe of the middle classes, popular with Jews and Armenians in particular. In her beautifully written book, "The Man in the white sharkskin suit", Egyptian born Lucette Lagnado writes about being taken there by her father as one of the most enduring memories of her childhood.

The book is an excellent record of a society that is no more - that of Egyptian Jewry, at its peak consisting of up to 80,000 people, now numbering less than 100 having been driven out in the 1950's and 1960's due to increasingly virulent and often violent anti-semitism, economic discrimination and wholesale confiscation of assets. As in many Arab countries, as Jews left they were forbidden to take items of value and many were robbed by customs officers and police as they boarded ships or planes. Readers wanting to know more about this period and the fate of other Jewish communities in Arab countries should visit the excellent website Point of no return.

Today's Groppi's (pictured below) is disappointing. The exterior of the cafe is as striking as in any photograph of earlier times with the beautiful, brightly coloured mosaic walls looking out over the Midaan, but the interior has been hacked to pieces with the most appalling bad taste plastic furnishings in the inner room and horror upon horrors, a massive TV screen. Lagnado's father would not have approved. And sadly the patisserie is nothing special either.

Cairo by Yekkes
Groppi's cafe

If Groppi's was disappointing, I was grateful to my guide for showing me a cafe that was an absolute delight. The El Shems cafe (pictured below) near Midan Orabi in the passage by 4 Sharia Tawfiqa is beyond kitsch, with every patch of wall decorated with brightly coloured images of dancers, animals and scenes from ancient Egypt, whilst the customers enjoy coffee, mint tea, sweets and the obligatory water pipe or sheesha. I even ventured back to this cafe on my own in the evening to drink coffee and read my book, as well as to observe the backgammon games and the comings and goings of the customers. Another treat is the Oum Kalthoum cafe on Sharia Al-Azbakiyah - a total tribute to the great vocalist, bedecked with her pictures and playing a non-stop soundtrack of her thousands of recordings. Good coffee too.

Cairo by Yekkes
El Shems cafe
Regular readers will know that as well as my special interest in coffee and cakes, I have a bit of a thing for book shops. Cairo did not disappoint and I found two particularly good shops - Lehnert and Landrock, founded by the German photographers of the same name. The main branch is in Sharia Sherif, still in Downtown and as well as books they sell great postcards and prints of old photos (including some of their own), maps of Cairo and Egypt and guide books in a range of languages. I was tempted to part with a tidy sum for a number of postcards from the 1950's, including some stamped with "United Arab Republic" - the name of the short lived union between Egypt and Syria (1958-61). There is another branch near the Sphinx. Also excellent, and with great staff was Shorouk at Midaan Talat Harb which has a good collection of Egyptian fiction translated into English. They are open until 11pm every day.

I managed to visit two synagogues whilst in Cairo. The Ben Ezra synagogue in the Coptic Cairo compound is easy to visit. The site of the famous Cairo Genizah, the synagogue dates from the 12th century, was restored in the 1980's and acts as a museum now, serving no religious function. The building was busy with tourists - although photography is strictly forbidden - and was in excellent condition but has a terrible sadness about it in that the community that built it, used it and had centuries of continuous history is long gone. This sadness is similar to that of many synagogues in central and eastern Europe that are also without communities following the Holocaust. Fortunately this was not enacted on the Jews of Egypt but they too suffered appalling anti-semitism that eventually forced them out of the country.

Cairo by Yekkes
Shar Hashamaim synagogue, Adley Street
I also visited the stunningly beautiful Shar Hashamaim synagogue on Adley Street. This was somewhat more difficult to visit. The building had been the object of an attempted terrorist attack a few months before my visit and had a heavy armed  police and military presence, with strict questioning on the purpose of my visit and lengthy examination of my passport before I was admitted. The interior is beautifully preserved with many art deco style features (although it dates from an earlier period - 1905). A woman was on duty inside the synagogue to explain in very limited English the different features of the building. She was wearing a cross around her neck. She allowed me to take pictures but told me to be quick, to take only a few and to not tell anyone I had done so. Photographs are strictly forbidden, including of the exterior which is a terrible shame as this is one of the most interesting buildings in the Downtown area, featuring palm tree symbols and Cecil B. de Mille style architecture. Services are very occasionally held here but rarely with a minyan and most of the congregants tend to be foreign visitors or embassy staff.

For those interested in knowing more about the history of Egyptian Jewry, Andre Aciman's book "Out of Egypt" is an excellent account of their twentieth century experience, whilst the flickr group Les Juifs d'Egypte is a wonderful photographic record of the community.

So, did I find what I was looking for? Was it worth the stopover on my way back from Eritrea? Definitely yes. The city still offers a glimpse into the Cairo I imagined, with the Yacoubian and Trieste buildings enduring, the Ades store closed but still a magnificent site, the sadness and the beauty of the empty synagogue on Adley Street, the delights of Al-Fishawis, the continuing interest in literature with book shops full of browsers and book stalls in the street managing to make a living and my little find - the El Shems cafe. Will I go back? There are still things I would like to see again, to understand better, and things I missed in the short time I was there. Time will tell.

Thursday 1 March 2012

Collaborators at the National Theatre "It's man versus monster Mikhail..."

John Hodge's new play "Collaborators" is currently running in the Cottesloe at London's National Theatre. It is very difficult to get a ticket but I finally managed it earlier this week and am very glad that I persevered.

The play shows the once officially "banned" writer Mikhail Bulgakov struggle with a request that he write a play about Stalin's younger days to mark the dictator's 60th birthday. Bulgakov, played by Alex Jennings, is plagued by nightmares about being chased by Stalin - demonstrated in an extremely funny and almost slapstick opening where the dream is played out, and expects a knock at the door in the middle of the night as did many writers and artists during this time. When the knock eventually comes and the NKVD (secret police) agent arrives, it is to inform him he will be writing the play for Stalin's birthday rather than to incarcerate him in Lubyanka.

We see Bulgakov's initial resistance to the task, refusing to co-operate with a regime he opposes. Early scenes show him as a principled liberal, devastated by the banning of his play "Moliere" which shows the great French writer dying as a result of "the King's displeasure" - a clear reference to state censorship and persecution of those who oppose the regime. And it is his desire to see his works produced that eventually proves his undoing. Offered the opportunity to be "unbanned" in return for writing a tributary play to the young Stalin, he agrees to co-operate, but finds that he can't write anything. Stalin offers him a compromise, that he himself will write the play in Bulgakov's name if Bulgakov agrees to deal with Stalin's "paperwork" and sign "JS" against instructions against the Five Year Plan and production of steel, coal and other goods.

As the play develops, we see Bulgakov showered with luxuries unavailable to the vast majority of Soviet citizens - real coffee, good food, his dress improves and he suddenly has access to good health care in contrast to the early scenes where he is told he will die from his condition, that there is no cure and that he will die soon.

Bulgakov is drawn in, co-operates, finds it amusing at first but when things eventually turn nasty, with the round-up of former Soviet heroes such as Kamenev and Bukharin, he starts to worry. Interestingly, Stalin refers to Kamenev as "Rozenfeld" during their discussions - the second time in a week that I have come across this particular case of Soviet anti-semitism (see here). He thinks he can prevent the descending reign of terror by suggesting "further enquiries" rather than allowing trials to go ahead but to his horror this leads to mass arrests, deportations and worse - including the disappearance of his erstwhile liberal and petty bourgeois lodgers.

Bulgakov's former admirers slip away as they hear him parroting the phrases of the NKVD and of Stalin, explaining away the early excesses referred to in the play in return for having his own works performed. Bulgakov's co-operation and developing closeness with Stalin replays the Faustian story of making a pact with the devil, and like Faust it ends badly, with Bulgakov realising his errors too late and then dying anyway due to the illness referred to at the beginning of the play.

Simon Russell Beale excelled in the role of Stalin, combining understated humour with an almost unspoken menace that turns to physical violence at the end of the evening. Early on, he plays the character as a simple, Georgian, still making references to his religious training, speaking romantically of his early days as an agitator in the Caucasus, but slowly revealing his true character and his evil genius. The arch manipulator, he flatters Bulgakov "I am your number one fan", playing on the writer's vanity and eventually flooring him physically but more devastatingly with the speech "Killing my enemies is easy. The challenge is to change the way they think, to control their minds. And I think I controlled yours pretty well. In years to come, I'll be able to say: Bulgakov? Yeah we even trained him. He gave up. He saw the light. We broke him, we can break anybody. It's man versus monster Mikhail. And the monster always wins..."

Mark Addy in the role of Vladimir, the NKVD man was also magnificent. Bullying and cajoling, getting the job done, demonstrating alternately his worldliness and his insecurity and inferiority complex in relation to the intellectuals, he came over for me, strangely, as perhaps the most human character in the play. Strange because he was clearly brutal, ambitious and greedy but human in that his buying into the regime was more honest than that of Bulgakov. The lesser educated man thoroughly understood the rules and consequences of Soviet life and how to play them much better than the famous writer.

In real life, Bulgakov did write a play about Stalin and had a difficult and volatile relationship with the Soviet regime. Graduating as a doctor in Kiev in 1916, he quickly gave up medicine to concentrate on writing, but many of his works were banned with some not being published until decades after his death. By 1930, he had become so frustrated that he took the daring step of writing to Stalin asking to be allowed to emigrate. Stalin telephoned him personally and offered to arrange a job for him at the Moscow Arts Theatre instead. He worked theatre with theatrical giant Stanislavsky, with whom he also had a volatile relationship, produced several plays and his acknowledged masterpiece, the novel "The Master and Margarita". This did not make its first appearance until 1966 due to the persistence of his widow, Elena, although even then only parts of it were published, eventually surfacing in a complete version in 1973.

He contracted a fatal illness in 1939 and died in 1940.

I have to confess to only having read one Bulgakov novel - "Black Snow", and that quite recently. Despite being a bit of a Russophile, at least culturally, I have mixed feelings about Russian novels. Apart from the fact that many are scattered with casual (or not so casual) anti-semitism, lots of them are, well..long. I have reached the age where an 800 pager can seem very daunting. I still have lots of books I want to read. Time is precious.

Black Snow isn't terribly long, but it is interesting. It is a thinly disguised attack on Stanislavsky and some of the other leading lights of the Moscow Art Theatre where Bulgakov worked during the 1930's. The book begins with an attempt at suicide and ends with the revelation that the narrator is already dead having made a further, successful attempt at ending it all.

This relatively short and often amusing novel, which is unfinished, was written at the very end of his life in the late 1930's, just 20 years or so after the establishment of the Soviet Union and in much the same way as "Collaborators" does, it shows that despite the alleged worker's paradise there was still a very clear class structure in Russian society, based on patronage and co-operating with the regime.

"Collaborators" is set to transfer to the larger Olivier Theatre at the National on April 30th and several performances are already sold out.

See also Building the revolution