REVIEW: Collaborators by John Hodge

Directed By Matt Nation

The concept of historical brutal dictatorships and comedy is not necessarily one that one considers as workable. Yet the likes of “The Producers” and “The Death of Stalin” show that the right level of satire can over come any qualms that may exist. John Hodge’s play “Collaborators” continues this trend as an Stoppard-like surreal absurdist comedy about the relationship between real life characters Joseph Stalin and Mikhail Bulgakov, which the Rondo Theatre Company are performing this very week.

John Hodge may be better known for his scriptwriting on “Shallow Grave” and “Trainspotting” amongst other blockbuster films but here in “Collaborators” he ratchets up the satire and hinges his story on a Machiavellian plan by Stalin toward the dissident playwright Mikhail Bulgakov.

Director Matt Nation has created a demanding – in effect – two scene play into a smoothly choreographed storyline, as the simple set of the Bulgakov’s Moscow flat replete with huge Soviet red star also covers the Lubyanka, theatre, rehearsal studio, doctor’s surgery, hospital, kremlin basement & metro, all clarified by Alex Latham’s subtle lighting changes, The cast smoothly transition between these environments adeptly – such is the skill of particularly community theatre in  representing multiple arenas in a limited space.

Act 1 is pure absurdist comedy. Bulgakov is pressured into writing a play for Stalin’s birthday, that ends up being written by Stalin himself while Bulgakov ends up running the Soviet Union. Its silly, its surreal – action also happening in Bulgakov’s head at times but just on the end of Act 1 the plot twists darkly.

Act 2 is pure black comedy. Though as the end of the play approaches is not so much comedy as horror as the repercussions of Bulgakov’s well intentioned “decisions” as a proxy for Uncle Joe come clear and those chickens come home to roost. Tragedy would be as good a description as the show reaches its denouement.

Weaving this excellently crafted and delivered tale are the cast of fourteen. Principal characters are unsurprisingly Stalin – complete with swept back hair and bristling moustache – played by Andy Fletcher, and Bulgakov played by Jon Thrower. They portray this odd collaboration skilfully and sympathetically, Stalin as an almost genial and friendly Uncle figure, Mikhail as the distrusting and incredulous playwright.

Mikhail’s peer group is comprised of his loving wife Yelena (Lucy Upward) portraying her increasing desperation and concern as to his health, Vassily an aging Czarist (Jonathan Hetreed), Praskovya a history teacher (Verity Neeves) that cannot discuss history before the revolution, and Sergei (Charlie Bevis) who have been billeted in the Bulgakovs’ small flat – Sergei lives in the cupboard!  On this note the cupboard is superbly used as the entry and exit of Mikhail’s dreams/hallucinations and also the secret Kremlin door (!). Charlie’s portrayal of the enthusiastic young Soviet is touchingly naïve, and the group rub along despite their clear and evident differences in opinion and approaches to life under Stalin. Completing Mikhail’s peer group are Grigory (Toby Gibbs) a young writer struggling to get his work published due to its anti-Soviet content and his wife Anna (Elisabeth Calvert) reflecting the times’ oppression.

Bulgakov’s doctor is portrayed amusingly (in all the right ways!) by Tim Hounsome, all overworked, distant and slapdash until treating the elite, while “the actors” are just wonderfully performed by Josie Mae-Ross and Richard Chivers, floating in and out of Mikhail’s dreams as well as acting out the play Bulgakov is “writing” …  Richard’s homage to Ernst Stavro Blofeld is almost a show stealer in itself.

Last but not least we come to the menace in the play – the NKVD officers.
Vladimir (Tom Turner) is quite brilliant as the jocular yet disquieting secret policeman who becomes more luvvie and obsequious as the play develops. Its unfair to pick out individual parts as “show stealers” especially in community theatre, but it would be remiss of me to not to praise one particular performance in this play. Tim Carter plays NKVD policeman number two, Stepan. A silent, brooding presence he delivers the real – literally unspoken – menace throughout whilst being at the back of the stage mostly. Its not until the very end that he comes to the fore in his own right, but it’s a special skill to not be heard but be influential in the action and Tim really nails the requirements.

Vladimir’s wife Eva is played with an almost cameo performance by mainstay of the Rondo theatre company, Alana Wright, who manages to stave of the unwanted attentions of Stepan… mostly…

Aside from Alex on lighting, Dylan Jackson provided sound tech and as a team they had a busy time and completed everything to perfection – this is a tech heavy show so huge congratulations to them. Other crew aspects were indeed “collaborated” on (d’ya see what I did there? ) by all of the above – set design and build, stage management (including Toby Skelton), costumes and publicity which was aided and abetted by Lisa Hounsome and Richard Fletcher with photography.

“Collaborators” is a fast paced, thinkers play – although the allusions to modern day Russia are evident and lie not very far beneath the surface. Some genuine laugh out loud moments, some shocking moments and Stalin’s final words to Bulgakov sum up the regime’s totalitarian control in a nutshell.

“Collaborators” is showing at the Rondo Theatre, Larkhall, Bath from June 19th to 22nd at 1930 every night.

Reviewer: Ian Diddams –