You’re a successful playwright but your work has been banned by your country’s dictator. But the ban will be lifted if you write a play officially honoring said dictator. What do you do? That’s the real-life dilemma faced by Mikhail Bulgakov (Alex Jennings) and Stalin (Simon Russell Beale) recreated by John Hodge’s new play “Collaborators.” Nicholas Hytner’s satirical production goes overboard attempting to be zany, but despite two terrific central performances, the play feels over-extended.
This is no formulaic “When X Met Y” — insert your own real-life names — trotting out a historical feud via expository-heavy dialogue. The opening make that clear, a boldy comic nightmare sequence with Stalin bursting through a wardrobe in a blast of sound and smoke to terrorize Bulgakov.
Instead, we watch Bulgakov amid his higgledy-piggledy household struggling in straitened circumstances. All of that changes with the feared knock on the door: The Soviet Secret Service, led by the leather-coated Vladimir (amusingly bumptious Mark Addy), makes him the “offer” that, in all likelihood, he cannot refuse.
Faced with the task of writing “Young Stalin” in less than a month for the man’s sixtieth birthday, Bulgakov draws a blank until unexpected help arrives in the shape of Stalin himself.
The latter genuinely was a fan — he saw Bulgakov’s “The White Guard” 15 times. Hodge runs with that, inventing the notion that Stalin is entranced by the idea of collaborating. Subsequent scenes between the two of them sweating over a hot typewriter are deftly intercut with the changing fortunes in the outside lives of Bulgakov and his threatened artistic circle.
Unsurprisingly, Hodge is writing about what happens when artists ally themselves too closely with repressive power. How does one avoid being bought off? Is it possible to remain untainted? Where does necessary compromise end and dangerous collusion begin?
Bulgakov’s descent from principle to pragmatism and beyond — he and Stalin swap roles and Bulgakov starts signing state orders — is charted with exquisite detail by Jennings. He seems to age physically throughout his character’s ordeal. Worry, initially flicked away with intellectual disdain, gradually infects and corrupts his body as the situation he thought he commanded slips inexorably out of his grasp.
He’s matched by a masterly Russell Beale. It’s a brilliant piece of disguise, and not really in the literal sense although his wig and costume lend him an uncanny resemblance. No shrieking despot, his regionally accented Stalin comes across as gently childlike, a blunt but quietly spoken honest innocent with only flashes of contorted fear.
Only very late on does Russell Beale allow audiences to see quite how canny his Stalin is, having hidden frighteningly manipulative power beneath a “who me?” exterior.
Unfortunately, the complexities of their scenes isn’t matched elsewhere. As Bulgakov’s wife, plaintive Jacqueline Defferary has little to do but look increasingly dismayed and almost all the other characters are merely functional.
Hytner’s consciously over-bright staging uses every possible trick to disguise this. Composer George Fenton dresses up scenes with perky, spoof-Shostakovich underscoring and designer Bob Crowley transforms the space into a traverse stage, a steeply angled, Soviet Constructivist-style walkway in red and grey which comically screams non-naturalism.
This gives full flower to the absurdist elements, eliciting cleverly exaggerated small roles and blackly comic entrances and exits. But it also makes the actors look awkward and self-conscious. In dinner-table scenes, cast members cannot move their chairs in so tight a squeeze.
The production emphasizes Hodge’s intended headlong rush of Bulgakov’s fall. It’s odd, therefore, that it includes an unearned intermission which saps the second act of tension. Trimming would remove some of the more schematic elements and would create uninterrupted flow to mask the conceptual flaws.