Friday, 2 December 2011

Рукописи не горят

It was off to Vue Cinema in Longwell Green last night to see a live screening of the new play by John Hodge, 'Collaborators', a satire based on the relationship between writer Mikhail Bulgakov and Joseph Stalin.  Much as I love Bulgakov (I studied 'The Master and Margarita' as part of my Russian degree and it's still right up there in my top three books ever), I found my enthusiasm waning as we hacked across Bristol through rainy rush-hour traffic.  But although I have some reservations, upon reflection it was worth the effort. 



Even in reality, Bulgakov had a somewhat surreal relationship with the great dictator.  Stalin was a self-declared fan, particularly of the 1926 play 'Days of the Turbins', which he claimed to have seen 15 times.  This was enough to protect Bulgakov from the fate suffered by almost every other critic of the Soviet Union during the 1930s - exile to the gulags or execution - although his plays were not produced, his writing not published.  Then Bulgakov was promised that his play about Molière would be unbanned, if he wrote one about the young Stalin to commemorate the dictator's 60th birthday. 



In 'Collaborators' we are taken deep into the terminally ill writer's feverish imagination, where, in a sort of Faustian pact, the two protagonists virtually swap places, with Stalin writing a suitably heroic play  about himself while Bulgakov finds himself sanctioning orders that will eventually lead to the Great Terror of 1937-38.  And this is where I have a problem.  'Collaborators' suggests that Stalin was the ultimate winner in this battle, with Bulgakov reduced to a cipher representing the compromised artist.  As it is, both Russia and the Ukraine claim him as a national hero, and the iconic 'The Master and Margarita' is regarded by many Russians as the greatest novel ever written.  As Woland himself says, 'manuscripts don't burn'. 



Hodge's flawed concept is redeemed by some great acting, particularly by Alex Jennings as Bulgakov and Simon Russell Beale as Stalin.  Both evolve through the course of the play, Bulgakov seeming to age as his ordeal and illness progress, and Stalin metamorphosing from a seemingly bumbling, avuncular innocent (with a disturbingly Bristolian accent) to the monster he finally declares himself to be: 'Killing my enemies is easy.  The challenge is to change the way they think, to control their minds.  And I think I controlled yours pretty well.  In years to come, I'll be able to say: Bulgakov?  Yeah, we even trained him.  He gave up.  He saw the light.  We broke him, we can break anybody.  It's man versus monster, Mikhail.  And the monster always wins.'  It is a terrifyingly accurate portrayal of the psychopath - master-manipulator behind a buffoonish mask which only slips towards the end of the play to reveal the evil behind it. 



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