Sunday, 30 October 2011

Collaborators (Preview) 28th October 2011

Who is in it? Collaborators is performed by Alex Jennings, Jacqueline Defferary, Simon Russell Beale, Patrick Godfrey, Maggie Service, Pierce Reid, William Postlethwaite, Mark Addy, Jess Murphy, Marcus Cunningham, Nick Sampson, Michael Jenn and Sarah Annis

Where did you see it? Cottesloe, National Theatre

When this play by John Hodges (Trainspotting, Shallow Grave) was announced back in January a large sigh was made by all those who read it. It would be easier to source hen's teeth than tickets for this play. The presence of Alex Jennings AND Simon Russell Beale;who have only worked together once before in 2006's The Alchemist also directed by Collaborators director Sir Nicolas Hytner, in the 300 seater Cottesloe meant the tickets didn't even get to public booking before being sold out.Thankfully I have an Entry Pass, which meant a select few tickets were held back for each performance even if those tickets are literally in the cheap seats. The benefit with the Cottesloe is that the staging is adaptable and the audience (relatively) small so viewing, despite being on row T, wasn't a problem.

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's strength is the relationship between Bulgakov and Stalin, as Stalin realises that Bulgakov cannot write a sycophantic play so Stalin will write it for him in exchange Bulgakov will do his job. What follows feels like a psychological thriller as Bulgakov defends Stalin's evil to his wife Yelena (Defferary) and friends, a situation encouraged by an improvement in their living conditions.

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 
Instead the message becomes "Tsk, wasn't that Stalin a scamp let's laugh at this ridiculous...oh no wait he did kill a lot of people and maybe we should be all serious and that about it in the second half" Beale is then forced to go from playing the clown, which he clearly enjoys to playing this "monster" a lesser actor would fail but Simon Russell Beale manages to turn the clown into a monster without it feeling like major, inexplicable change. Jennings has a easy role as the tragic Bulgakov who everyone seems to adore, is intelligent. His only "failing" is fearing the death of himself and loved ones at the hands of Stalin so he does odd things like write letters asking to let out of Soviet Union then backtracking when offered a job at the Moscow Arts Theatre. It isn't clear why he didn't just leave, Yelena seemed keen to.

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


  1. An unfair portrayl of the supporting cast as they are beautifully fulfilling their roll in supporting the 'gods' Alex and Simon. William Postlethwaite is not only the polar oppostite from his father but his performance was sensationally subtle and moving. Your 'review' is infact 'mean-spirited' and extremely 'bitter'. Kathleen

  2. I do like to deliver what I promised, Kathleen! I would argue that in the one scene that Postlewaite has to shine (I don't want to spoilt it), he doesn't. Nobody does, I think that scene is the reason the second half is getting the harsh reviews that is has been (from amateur and professional) but I think the issue is writing/direction rather than performance.As I said Postlewaite is given a highly limted role that wouldn't challenge even the worst actors. The audience don't care about Grigory because we don't know Grigory (except that he is persecuted, just like everyone is).

    Postlewaite needs a meatier, better written role before I can judge whether he is capable or not.

  3. stumbled over this, and i have to say, having seen the play i think this is generally a fair opinion, however you didn't 'risk' being cruel, about william, you were directly cruel, wether you realize it or not. i dont see what names and cheekbones have to do with anything, when it comes to reviewing a play. All of those who you like to refer to as graduates deserve and (im sure would prefer) to be judged on their performances alone, i just cant see any need whatsoever to comment on faces and names - incredibly shallow. and as for your need to see him in a meatier part; im sure he would enjoy the chance too, but i think (and i may be wrong) there is something of a ladder to climb for any graduate in this industry. Forgive me but meat of your review is somewhat shadowed by a strange vein of bitterness.