Monday, 13 February 2012

Collaborators - review

Written by: Joshua Ward

The National Theatre, Cottesloe
It is 1938 and Mikhail Bulgakov, the Russian, counter-revolutionary satirist, has awoken to a dilemma. After years of stifled creativity, Joseph Stalin, the tormentor of his nightmares, his most formidable censor and ‘number one fan’, wants to collaborate on a brand new work celebrating the dictator’s youth. Can Bulgakov deliver the goods and claim his reward (a rejuvenated writing career) with his bourgeois ideologies intact? Or is this an elaborate social experiment spun by a bored bureaucrat to rob Bulgakov of his bite?

Set in the round, the action rolls out from an angular cupboard (of which Stalin is the proverbial monster) onto a vibrantly vortacistic walkway which slopes and zig-zags its way onto a lightly dressed central arena. Replete with entrance and exit points, there is something farcical about Bob Crowley’s set but the stark juxtaposition between the fluorescent and the obscure hints at something more nightmarish. Although I enjoyed the use of space, due to viewing restrictions, the SL audience were cheated out of seeing the beginning and end of the play, delivered upon an otherwise unused double bed.

After a limp exposition of kissing, simpering and general adulation cast towards our understated hero, the bulk of the action revolves around a series of what seem like bizarre work experience placements; Stalin is allowed a hack at playwriting whilst Bulgakov is handed the reins of the Soviet Republic. Alex Jennings plays a demure Bulgakov. Considerate, gentle, polished and familial, he and his friends are the emblems of intellectualised civility in a mad hatter world and in such an ominous setting, this group can often seem swamped. The stage is only ever truly filled by the presence of Simon Russell Beale’s lumbering, roguish Stalin. Complete with a soft West Country burr and a twinkle in the eye, Beale clowns his way between new best friend and playground bully with unnerving delicacy.

Despite the finesse of the central two-hander, the production is let down by its periphery action. Despite some lovely scenes with Bulgakov’s doctor (Nick Sampson) and a wonderful performance by Mark Addy as an NKVD minder, the remainder of the cast appear wet, two-dimensional, fleeting and hard to invest in. Many of the comic routines appeared tired in comparison with the jocular score and lazy ad-libbing made for poor payoffs. The lack of substantial warmth felt towards this set of characters prevents a more sentimental response to the tragedy that befalls them later in the play. This, for me, levelled what should be both a moving and fiercely funny play.

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