Sunday, 6 November 2011

Collaborators at the National Theatre

Our little theatre-going group has developed a bit of a thing for Simon Russell Beale. We’ve loved him in every role we’ve seen him in, from the rich, opportunist gentleman in London Assurance, to a weak-willed academic in The Philanthropist. He seems to have a capacity to completely encapsulate the character he plays, from the hair on his head to his little toe. His facial expressions are truly magnificent - he can send an audience into uncontrollable hilarity with just the raise of an eyebrow. As Stalin in last night's play, Collaborators, he was both scary, charming, funny and pathetic - everything you'd imagine a truly disturbing and disturbed dictator would be. 

But the triumph of National Theatre’s production of Collaborators can’t be put down to one man’s performance alone; excellent as it was.

Firstly the play is brilliantly written by John Hodge. It opens with an excellent dream sequence where our struggling Russian playwright, Mikhail Bulgakov, expertly played by Alex Jennings, is being chased – and caught – by Stalin. The first dialogue sees Bulgakov lie to his wife that this time in his recurring dream he had caught and killed the dictator. 

This lie – or piece of self-delusion – sets the scene for the whole play. With his work banned from the Moscow theatre, Bulgakov is asked by the authorities to write a play about Stalin. He refuses, but is brutally convinced by an officer of the NKVD (secret police, played by Mark Addy) to take on the task. 

The plot with its inevitable march towards disaster, has funny as well as tragic turns, as the hero is made to struggle with his conscience: can he surrender his artistic integrity for basic human needs such as fresh fruit, coffee, hot water, and a the safety of those he loves?  

During the course of the play, he meets Stalin (Russell Beale), himself. Their roles in life are reversed, with tragic consequences.

The set, which remains the same throughout the two and a half hour play, is cleverly designed so that when the actors walk around and underneath several platforms, the action too moves from room to room.  

But beyond the obvious message of Collaborators - that Stalin indeed was a devious and brutal dictator - the play also begs the question, who’s more to blame for the failure of a political system, the liberal artists who oppose and criticise current leadership, or those in power who are the ones who have to make the vital - often impossible - decisions on the lives of the 'ordinary' people.  

Just like Bulgakov’s play within the play, set in the 17th century about Moliere, was really a commentary about the time he was living in, so can this production of Collaborators easily be seen as a critique on modern times.

Who amongst the politicians, the journalists, the critics and the demonstrators controls whom? And would any of them have done a better job of avoiding wars, third world famine, or even the current economic crisis? 

Cottesloe at the National Theatre
South Bank
London SE1 9PX
For tickets from 31st January booking opens on 23rd November
Runs until 31 March 2012