Where did you see it? Cottesloe, National Theatre
The play is set in 1938 where Mikhail Bulgakov (Jennings) is haunted by dreams of Joseph Stalin (Beale) chasing and killing him with his own typewriter. Bulgakov is battling terminal illness and Soviet oppression as he attempts to stage Moliere, about a playwright's struggle about an oppressive force. The play is banned after one performance but the secret police in the shape of Vladmir and Stepan (Addy and Cunningham) offer Bulgakov a choice; write a play about Stalin for his upcoming 60th birthday and see Moliere staged again or be arrested by the secret police and executed. Bulgakov takes the first option.
The play struggles, perhaps due to direction, staging or just time limits, to depict the message I think Hodges really wanted to get across that Batum, the birthday play for Stalin about his youth and emergence as a key Soviet figure (which later be depicted in Young Stalin, a book by Simon Sebag-Montefiore) isn't like Bulgakov's other work and thus must be written by someone else. This relies on the audience being familiar with his previous work and not being like myself, who only came because I enjoy this period on a historical level and because they quite fancy Alex Jennings (Jennings is looking foxy as ever said one twitter account-Absolutely!)
|Simon Russell Beale in rehearsals|
The biggest let down is the dull supporting cast, with the exception of Addy who is pretty close to perfect in this and bigger revelation than the theatre gods that are Jennings and Beale. The parts for the supporting cast feel very much like Hodges promised a drama school parts for their graduates. There is nothing for them to get their teeth into, for example William Postlethwaite plays a friend of Bulgakov, Grigory but there was nothing in the performance that really made him stand out. At the risk of sounding cruel if he didn't have the Postlethwaite name and cheekbones I wonder if he would have even been considered because, frankly, any young actor could have played that part.
I think crucially this play is very good and very well researched but it doesn't feel special. I didn't, despite its big names, feel I was watching a classic play and thus deserves its place in the tiny Cottesloe but I expect demand means it may get restaged in one of the bigger National theatres. If you can't get a ticket, don't worry, see it when it comes to NT Live on December 1st