Mikhail Bulgakov was an anti-Soviet writer of the first half of the 20th century with one unique trait: Joseph Stalin adored him. In spite of this, before 1938, little of Bulgakov’s work was published or performed due to Soviet censorship, the main exception being The White Guard, which Stalin himself saw 15 times. Thus, Bulgakov’s bizarre decision in 1938 to accept a commission of a play about a young Joseph Stalin forms the basis of John Hodge’s Collaborators.
It is clear from the beginning that the play deliberately avoids treating Stalinist Russia with seriousness and reverence: the opening scene is a recurring dream of Bulgakov’s in which he is chased around a table slapstick style by the General Secretary of the USSR himself, only with silent movie piano music in the background. Think of the Benny Hill theme tune and you’re not far off.
The horrors, atrocities, and cruelties of the Stalinist purges (in which 1 of 18 Russian citizens were imprisoned or killed) are not portrayed in a grim, grey, depressing light. Instead, their severity is offset by the abundance of humour throughout the play. The lunacy of Stalinism is portrayed as exactly that, initially evoking a laugh, but later making it all the more hard-hitting when you realise it’s truth.
Bulgakov’s lodging mates provide a plethora of wisecracks and mockeries of Stalinist-era Russia in the opening scenes, with Praskovya’s “It is imperative that I remember nothing” comedically highlighting the level of state-control over citizens’ lives and thoughts in an Orwellian dystopian sense. A series of witty interactions between Vasilly, an ex-landowner under Tsarism, and Sergei, a staunchly Communist factory worker, drew some of the biggest laughs of the night providing the timeless right vs left political debate in its characteristic form.
Particularly moving interactions between Angus Fraser (Bulgakov) and Alison Stibbe (Yelena, Bulgakov’s wife) provide brief moments of sorrow and sympathy when Bulgakov is diagnosed with nephrosclerosis (an anagram of ‘Censorship loser’), though these do not detract from the sheer joie-de-vivre of Bulgakov and co. throughout the rest of Act 1.
Soon, Bulgakov is having meetings with Stalin underneath the Kremlin and in a strangely humorous turn of events, the pair swap jobs. Stalin assumes the role of writing the play, and Bulgakov takes to ruling the USSR. After his meetings with Stalin become more and more regular, Bulgakov’s commitment to oneself and one’s principles seems to wane in favour of the idea that “the individual doesn’t matter” when the collective good is at stake.
Blurton’s Stalin (bonus points for the real moustache) is suitably deceiving: supposedly enamoured with Bulgakov Stalin the genocidal egomaniacal dictator is initially cuddly, fanboying, borderline obsessed with Bulgakov. It isn’t long though before the twinges of the true Stalin appear as Bulgakov falls deeper and deeper into his traps, though these clues were a little too subtle at times the. This movement from comedy towards a darker tone culminates in Act 2. This drastic change in tone proved a little challenging for some of the cast to negotiate immediately post-interval but it wasn’t long before the new profoundly emotional tone took hold.
The simplicity of the staging, consisting only of a table and chairs, a cupboard, a telephone, and a gramophone (with no real ‘scene’ change throughout) allows for the play to maintain a fluidity and pulse that would otherwise be non-existent given the number of scene changes there technically are. The back wall, a block of Communist red, serves as a looming reminder for the audience: this is Stalinist Russia, you cannot escape the State. The only escape from this is provided in black Cyrillic text: “manuscripts do not burn.”
Collaborators presents the dichotomy of the individual and the collective. For Bulgakov, in order to protect his own collective of friends and family, he needed to remain true to himself as an individual, instead of becoming another passive obedient of the Stalinist regime. Bulgakov only stood out from the wash of red through his dissenting works, the black Cyrillic against a wall of red. For all its hilarity and vivacity, Collaborators also had moments of profundity, with the timeless words of Bulgakov’s The Master and Margharita, his last (dissenting) novel, “manuscripts do not burn”, serving as a message to all those believing their individuality is insignificant in the face of the collective.