The year is 1938, and life in the Soviet Union is hard for playwright Mikhail Bulgakov (author of The Master and Margarita). Food is scarce, hot water is non-existent, and he is haunted by recurring nightmares of Stalin breaking into his apartment and chasing him round the table. With this set-up, writer John Hodge primes the audience for a deliciously black comedy that examines one of the darkest periods of modern history through a lens of magical realism.
Shortly after the opening scene, Bulgakov (Angus Fraser) is placed in a thoroughly unpleasant situation. His most recent play Moliére has been banned by the NKVD after its opening performance. Despite this, the secret police officer Vladimir (Alistair Nunn) immediately orders Bulgakov to write a play about Stalin’s early life. Bulgakov, a dissident, initially refuses, though later accepts in order to ensure that Moliére is unbanned, and his wife Yelena (Alison Stibbe) isn’t shot. Nonetheless, Bulgakov is paralyzed by writer’s block, until he receives an anonymous phone call asking for a meeting in a train station.The source of this call is revealed to be Stalin (Matt Blurton) himself, who admits to being a fan of Bulgakov and suggests that he write the play whilst Bulgakov takes on his duties as head of the Soviet Union.
Or does he? For the moment Bulgakov encounters Stalin, the play begins to grow increasingly surreal, inevitably reaching a point where it becomes difficult to discern reality from fiction. Initially, it seems reasonable to argue that his meetings with Stalin are the only fictitious events, since these meetings represent Bulgakov’s attempts to project sympathetic qualities on to the leader (as he admits that he is unable to write characters that he doesn’t love) at the expense of his own soul. However, as time draws closer to Stalin’s purges, and as Bulgakov finds it increasingly difficult to disassociate his own actions from those of Stalin, some of the scenes appear to pointedly reference his own dealings with the leader. The effect is extremely disorientating, though this was undoubtedly intentional, as Bulgakov’s increasingly chaotic mental state serves to parallel the chaos of the Soviet Union. Occasionally, the ominous sounds of a train are audible, symbolising the nation’s unstoppable and inevitable rush towards destruction. When the sounds of a train are replaced with the sounds of a ticking clock in the final moments of the play, the meaning is appallingly clear: we have arrived at the moment of destruction for both our protagonist and the nation. There is nothing we can do but count down the final few seconds.
If I had one criticism to level at the otherwise powerful and disorientating narrative of Collaborators, it would be that I never found the process of Bulgakov’s corruption entirely convincing. Hodge clearly meant to illustrate that, as a result of various minor but escalating decisions, Bulgakov eventually ended up orchestrating the purges, in his own mind if not in reality. However, these supposedly minor decisions still appear stunningly naïve for a dissident playwright, even if he lacks our ability to view the events in historical context. Nonetheless, the characters are extremely engaging, which is largely a result of the ability of the actors. Alistair Nunn does a particularly commendable job as Vladimir, who in the first half alternates between disarmingly genial and disturbingly menacing. However, in the second half, the presence of Vladimir is appropriately overshadowed by that of both Stalin and Bulgakov, and both Matt Blurton and Angus Fraser demonstrate themselves as equally capable of dominating the stage. Fraser appears appropriately wrought with doubt and anxiety whilst Blurton reveals his ability to appear extremely affable, until suddenly, he’s not.
Like some of the best dark comedies, Collaborators is at once very amusing and extremely disturbing. I’d recommend watching it if you can, especially if you’re in the mood for something surreal.