It’s always an enormous pleasure watching Simon Russell-Beale in a production, especially when Nicholas Hytner is the Director, and last night was no exception. Collaborators, a new play by John Hodge is previewing at The Cottesloe, opening on the 1st November. The play is inspired by historical fact and centres on the Russian playwright, Mikhail Bulgakov, who in 1938 was commissioned to write a play about Stalin.
The play enters the surreal world of Bulgakov, played by the excellent Alex Jennings, as he leaves the impoverished apartment he shares with his wife and three dissidents to have meetings with the murderous dictator. Their relationship turns out to be macabre and disturbingly funny and causes those back home to question the whole exercise.
Although the play is funny, there are moments of tension, especially when Stalin, the wonderful Simon Russell Beale and Vladimir, a member of the Secret Police, expertly portrayed by Mark Addy, play their tactical games of uncertainty. As John Hodge writes in the programme: a subtle alteration in job description might lead to arrest weeks later, or, just possibly, it might not.
The surrealist moments in the production weren’t always immediately clear, but having to think is often a good thing and Bob Crowley’s staging, although complicated, worked well. Mind you, the slope dividing the apartment’s bedroom from the living area, needs careful negotiating; one actor obviously misjudged it and did an awkward “soft shoe shuffle”.
I thoroughly enjoyed this thought provoking insight into life in Moscow under Stalin’s reign of terror and the chemistry between Simon Russell Beale and Alex Jennings was a joy.