Arriving at a rehearsal for Collaborators, I am informed by the assembled company that they can’t start quite yet – we need to wait for Stalin to arrive. He’s at work, you see. Thankfully, Stalin, when he turns up, is in the form of Timothy Coleman, portraying the Soviet dictator in this production of John Hodge’s Collaborators, to be performed this weekend at the Oxford Union.
This slightly surreal moment nonetheless offers an intriguing way in to Hodge’s play, which deals at least in part with the difficulty of shaping creative expression around the very specific wishes of one man. This piece ultimately deals with some unsettling and almost always unacknowledged parallels between the control of an artist over his creation, and that of an autocratic leader over the lives (and deaths) of his people. Reassuringly, Coleman informs me he has not been doing any ‘method-acting’ in preparation for the role.
The play was still in the final stages of rehearsal, and it was clear how far the directors had already progressed in realising their vision, and the level of dedication being now applied to perfecting what are already compelling scenes. Jordan Reed portrays Mikhail Bulgakov with an affecting subtlety of emotion, which brilliantly captures the deteriorating physical and mental health of the morally-compromised playwright. Stalin is portrayed with a disturbingly childlike vein of psychopathy which is at turns darkly humorous and deeply unsettling. The characters’ emotional journeys through the framework of a totalitarian regime are thoroughly and compellingly realised. They constitute a testament to the aim expressed by the directors – Saskia Lumley and Bridget Dru – not to allow the historical and political context to overshadow the building up and tearing down of personal relationships on which the piece hinges.
The choice of the Union debating chamber as a venue is perhaps a fitting one – the directors explain one factor in their decision to stage it here being the chamber’s status as a political arena. The expansiveness of the space evokes a sense of power and grandeur, to be enhanced on the night by the hanging of Soviet banners. Nonetheless, care has been taken to retain the claustrophobia that lies at the play’s heart by keeping the actors hemmed in by the audience with the use of traverse staging.
When asked, the directors state they aren’t trying to convey a specific moral message. Rather, there will be plenty for the audience to consider, from the interpretative methods of both propaganda and play-writing to the disintegration of human values and relationships. With its blend of the surreal and the intensely psychological, Collaborators seems ready to take its place as a uniquely thought-provoking production.