Review: ‘Collaborators’

Tilly Nevin rates this student production as amongst the best she has seen in Oxford

When his work was banned, Mikhail Bulgakov, playwright and author, sent a desperate letter to Stalin himself, asking to be exiled if he couldn’t work in the USSR. Stalin replied and his favour ensured that Bulgakov’s work continued to be published and performed. Bulgakov secured a position at the Moscow Art Theatre because of Stalin’s influence, and in 1938 he agreed to write a play about Stalin himself.

John Hodge’s play The Collaborators imagines that the relationship between Bulgakov and Stalin was longer and more intense than suspected; the two don’t just exchange letters but have regular telephone calls and secret meetings where Stalin writes the play of 1938 and Bulgakov signs orders ‘JS’ for Joseph Stalin, carrying out the General Secretary’s work. Eventually Hodge imagines that it was Bulgakov’s interference that led directly to the the mass execution of innocents.

A cupboard at the side of the stage functioned as not only an instance of the appalling living conditions which were endured at the time, but was also a device allowing characters to appear on stage or disappear back into. It added to the comic effects of the play, as in the first half Sergei (Jake Boswall) and Yelena (Miranda Collins) disappear into the cupboard together ‘to play chess’ or as Stalin bursts out from it, doors slamming behind him.

The cupboard becomes a part of Mikhail’s dream, allowing Stalin to chase the writer around his kitchen table until he’s cowering on the floor, caught. Sometimes it added a sense of realism to the play, sometimes some comic relief, and yet most of the time it seemed almost Alice-in-Wonderland-esque, adding to the ambiguity surrounding the relationship between Mikhail and Stalin.

Could any of this have truly happened or is it merely a part of an increasingly ill Bulgakov’s imagination? A door is opened to the hidden histories we might not ever fully know as well as to the imagination of the writer—in The Master and Margarita, the banned, Mikhail eponymous heroes move from domestic Bulgakov, playwright spaces into hell and into limbo. The Collaborators has been called a ‘surreal fantasy’ and the staging allowed us to enter into this world, never knowing what might emerge on stage.

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Bulgakov increasingly seems to be abandoning his principles, defending to his friends Stalin’s orders for murder and the widespread persecution, and losing his ideals about the worth of the individual, freedom of expression and the importance of the writer as a voice of dissent.

The gradual disappearance of characters throughout the play doesn’t even seem to worry Bulgakov initially, though the audience misses the continual comic relief provided by Sergei and the other occupants of the house. In the first half of the play, the love between Mikhail and his wife is obvious as they dance around the table to music but in the second half the music jars as their relationship grows tense. Music is replaced by shots heard offstage.

The table transforms into the desk at which Stalin types up the play and Bulgakov signs orders, as the rosy glow of Bulgakov’s home subsides into darkness broken with a single spotlight. It is the site of the power-play between the two men where at first it seems like Bulgakov holds some power over Stalin but this is soon revealed as an ‘illusion’. Stalin calls himself obsessive over Bulgakov, but the latter also becomes obses- sive and keeps on returning to the meetings. Stalin, played by a hugely impressive Joe Peden, is sometimes jovial, sometimes angry and sometimes easily appeased by Bulgakov. At one point, incensed, he violently throws paper across the floor which remains lying there until the end of the play, reminding the audience just who this sometimes comic figure really is.

The acting was impressive with Rory Fraser playing an increasingly broken Bulgakov, slowly realising the consequences of his actions. ‘Actor One’ and ‘Actor Two’, played by Rupert Stonehill and Bella Soames, made the audience laugh uncontrollably; Alex Rugman and Sophie Badman as Vassily and Praskovya also provided moments of comic relief that, though understated, were still memorable.

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It was particularly noticeable that these actors could convey both the comic and tragic: Rupert Stonehill who also played Grigory, and Callum Coghlan as Vladimir. This was one of best student productions I’ve seen while at Oxford with an enviable cast who did justice to this incredibly moving play.