The National Theatre Live series continues this month with Collaborators, the debut play of screenwriter John Hodge. While the assaultive style and black comedy of his film writing (Trainspotting, Shallow Grave) aren’t to the fore here, there is still a chilly/comical cast to the story.
Drawing on Russian playwright Mikhail Bulgakov’s known acquaintance with Joseph Stalin, who supported him against political and artistic criticism, Hodge imagines a relationship between them after Stalin commissions a play to celebrate his 60th birthday. It is, of course, fraught with risk, but the reward for success is too great a motivator for Bulgakov to resist. Watched anxiously by wife and friends, he meets Stalin and the collaboration begins.
Stalin (Simon Russell Beale) proves to be easier to get on with than expected: relaxed, friendly, involved. Perhaps too involved. The collaboration evolves into something surprising – if barely credible – and sinister. As a take on the harnessing of art for political purposes, it’s certainly one you couldn’t have predicted.
Beale, whose presence in 2010’s London Assurance was a knockout, gets the light and shade of the smiling monster; Alex Jennings’s Bulgakov is suitably conflicted. But as efficient as the production is, with seamless scene transitions and fluid exits and entrances on a deliberately cramped playing space, you’re always aware of watching a play, and one that lacks tension and the OMG factor.
It’s unfair to compare an intimate work like this with last season’s production of Frankenstein, in which director Danny Boyle gave a breathtaking example of pushing the boundaries of filmed theatre, but Collaborators feels earthbound, conventional and ultimately slight. It so happens that Boyle directed Trainspotting. They should have let him loose on this.
COLLABORATORS, directed by Nicholas Hytner and Ross MacGibbon, was broadcast on New Zealand cinemas during January 2012.