When John Hodge’s Olivier-award-winning debut play, The Collaborators, was first staged in 2011, critics praised the gripping, faintly disturbing aura that imbued its central relationship, between playwright Mikhail Bulgakov’s and Soviet dictator, Joseph Stalin. The interpretation currently being performed in the Oxford Union’s debating chamber is just as worthy of praise for its subtly disquieting air, distilled brilliantly by the two protagonists, played by Jordan Reed and Timothy Coleman.
The Collaborators tells the story of Bulgakov’s attempt to construct a play about Stalin for the dictator’s 60th birthday celebrations. Torn between his counter-revolutionary instincts and his safety, Bulgakov agrees to the task and begins to explore Stalin’s life with help from the man himself. As the two become friendlier, Bulgakov begins to question his own political standpoint, to sympathise with the difficulties of leading a communist state, and to understand the motives of the infamous autocrat. Reed’s portrayal of Bulgakov is laced with a commendable realism; he embodies the world-wearied playwright superbly as he sighs, protests, and achieves an emotional depth that is entirely believable.
Coleman’s unsettlingly gleeful Stalin is equally understated. He is paradoxically likeable, almost endearing, whilst retaining a degree of menace. However, it is Reed and Coleman’s interaction, their chemistry, which is most engaging. Their developing relationship is entirely convincing and one can easily understand Bulgakov’s growing sympathy for Stalin’s regime as a result of the dictator’s persuasive, appealing manner. Adam Diaper is absorbing as Vladimir, the intimating secret policeman with artistic pretensions
who gradually becomes disenchanted with the oppressive administration, Duncan Cornish is darkly comic as a sexually-deprived doctor, and Hannah Kelly is adept as Yelena, Bulgakov’s despairing wife. Bridget Dru and Saskia Lumley direct with confidence and dynamism.
The Collaborators is staged on three levels and action transitions between these areas. Scenes overlap, a mutable pace only sporadically transgresses into dawdle or rush, and a sense of potential volatility is generally maintained throughout. Some group scenes are decidedly clunky, but as the play’s themes grow darker, this unsettling atmosphere draws one in and the denouement little short of captivating. At a running time of around two and a half hours long, The Collaborators is a decidedly heavy drama, yet its gritty plot, refreshingly under- stated acting and self-assured direction rarely fail to hold one’s attention. On the surface, it is the story of one man’s attitude towards an oppressive communistic regime, yet at heart it is a compelling and profound account of the relationship between two fundamentally opposed individuals.