Was Dom Fond?
Okay, so I'm going to be honest – I couldn't get a ticket, nor did I have the time to go to the National and watch a play about Stalin. So I went to the cinema. But before you say “well that was a quick review”, you can stop right there, because I did see Collaborators! Thanks to a (fairly) recent initiative, the National Theatre of Great Britain has been broadcasting plays across the globe in the form of NT Live, and I had the distinct pleasure of watching Collaborators from the comfort of rainy Richmond, in a cinema where you pay more for Jelly Beans than you do for cab fare – it's fine though because they were fair trade.
The seats were comfortable, the beans were high class and the audience was primed. The broadcast started with a woman who looked like Claudia Winkleman, but wasn't Claudia Winkleman, talking us through the NT Live initiative and informing us that this was the first event broadcast live from the Cottesloe. Brilliant - I came for a play about history, and instead I was making history. Was this high spirit a precursor to the evening's show? I hoped so.
When the play eventually started (after we saw the audience inside the National conversing between themselves), it was... well, bizarre, to say the least. It was as if Tom and Jerry had taken over the stage as Stalin (Simon Russell Beale) chased Bulgakov (Alex Jennings) around the room; the only thing this scene is missing is a giant novelty hammer. However, when this turned out to be a dream of Bulgakov's, I shared his relief as the rest of the play is outstanding. It is obvious that Beale and Jennings handle this weighty script with ease, with Beale's West Country Stalin providing the comedy, and Jennings' refined Bulgakov providing the drama, as the latter is recruited by the secret police to secretly write a play for Stalin, who is secretly helping him write this secret script from a secret hideout... in secret.
When we hit the interval, this high octane performance certainly left me wanting more. Now - this was when I decided I was hungry, and as one does in such situations, purchased aforementioned Jelly Beans. Whilst munching away on these beans, each of which slowly dug into my overdraft, I had time to reflect on the nature of this play, and why it was lending itself so well to the big screen. It was, at times, as if I were watching a film, which is silly because I wasn't. The camera did wonders to highlight the subtleties of the actors – particularly in their faces. We picked up on every one of Stalin's facial expressions through the close ups, and the camera followed each piece of the action, focussing our attention for us. You barely have to do anything. It's like being spoon fed mushy peas – all you have to do is sit there and take it in.
The second half was far darker than the first, but no less engaging and entertaining. The acting continues to be exceptional, and the scene transitions are fantastically smooth and cinematic, courtesy of the combination of a script written by John Hodge (Trainspotting) and direction by Nicholas Hytner.
As the play drew to its abrupt close, an audience applauded across 5 continents. As awkward as it is giving a standing ovation to actors more than 100 meters away, it is nonetheless thoroughly deserved. So, the next time you choose to go to the cinema, maybe give NT Live a go? I mean, it's no Orange Wednesdays, but how often does Brad Pitt perform live? Highly recommended. Maybe bring your own Jelly Beans though.