Review: John Hodge’s ‘Collaborators’

Bessie Yuill finds herself simultaneously amused and disturbed by this dark tragedy about a fictional meeting between Stalin and Bulgakov

Oxford Innovative Theatre’s new version of John Hodge’s Soviet satire at the Pilch provided a fascinating balance of dark humour and surreal tragedy. Based on the real-life association between the writer Mikhail Bulgakov and Stalin, this play reimagines the dictator’s admiration for the often subversive artist as a Faustian bargain between the two, and portrays Bulgakov’s descent into the moral complications of associating with the Kremlin as Stalin increasingly occupies his art.

The scenes I previewed showcased Miranda Collins as Bulgakov’s concerned wife Yelena, Callum Coghlan’s comically sympathetic officer Vladimir, Sophie Badman as the officer’s wife, Alex Rugman as morally astute friend Vassily and Rupert Stonehill as fellow subversive artist Grigory. They interacted with a playful humour which was undercut by a sense of the paranoia surrounding the Kremlin and those artists that questioned it. The contrast of the setting—Bulgakov’s flat in Moscow—with the mentioned tragedies of Russian peasants also demonstrated the creeping darkness surrounding the artist’s dilemmas. The supporting cast appears to be excellent at conjuring this precarious, nightmarish version of a society comedy, while unaware of the precise danger that Bulgakov is in. The main draw, however, must of course be the two leads.

The balance of opposites in Rory Fraser and Joe Peden, playing Bulgakov and Stalin respectively, brings the central premise to enthralling, darkly comic life. The initially pleasant and relaxed demeanour of Peden’s Stalin threatens to break through to brutal aggression at any moment, creating a tense unease for the audience which would not exist if they were merely shown the cliched statesman figure that the name ‘Stalin’ conjures.

Fraser as Bulgakov captures a nervous intellectual perfectly: originally preoccupied with his artistry but increasingly haunted by the mounting moral conundrums. The scene between the two characters in Act 2 that I was shown played their conversation as cat-and-mouse manipulation, as the power shifted between them until Bulgakov caved. The casting serves this dynamic absolutely and charges their dynamic with a compelling contrast.

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The tensions underlying the fast-paced wit are created equally by the script and the cast, and the chilling joviality of the play’s humorous moments are sure to amuse and disturb an audience. This play of paranoia and double-meanings delivers the promise of its ambiguous title, and makes you consider loyalties both artistic and political—but don’t be put off if you don’t know much about Russian history, as you’re guaranteed an incredible time with this surreal interpretation anyway.

Collaborators showed at the Pilch Studio from Wednesday 25 – Saturday 28 January.