Based on one of the most bizarre moments in theatrical history, Collaborators is a surreal trip through a world of literary genius and dictatorial paranoia. Set amidst the purges of 1930s Moscow, John Hodge’s morbidly funny play tells the story of esteemed Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov (author of The Master & Margarita), a man facing the full force of Soviet censorship until he receives an unexpected commission: the secret police need someone to write a play about Stalin’s life to celebrate the General Secretary’s sixtieth birthday. Impact spoke to director Will Berrington and actor Jack Ellis (playing the dictator himself) about this tale of savage repression, artistic humiliation and very dark humour indeed.
First things first, the moustache is real.
“The moustache was already there, it’s just been given the full month and a half to develop,” muses Ellis. “People do always ask if I’m growing this for Movember. I have to tell them no, it’s for Stalin.”
Collaborators, the first play of the season to require the cultivation of unique facial hair, has been an exercise in the surreal from the very start. Berrington, now directing his fifth in-house play, knew it was a perfect choice from the moment he finished reading Hodge’s script.
“I was given this play by a friend about four weeks before we decided to propose it,” he explains, “He just said ‘read this – doesn’t it remind you of what politics is like at the moment?’”
“I laughed my head off for the first half of the play, but by the end I thought: oh my God, this is scarily accurate.”
Satisfied with the suitability of the murkily humorous yet oddly resonant script, Berrington and his team promptly set about planning how to make their own mark on the production.
“Although we never wanted to take much away from the original, I had my own ideas for the play from the moment I read it,” notes Berrington. The choice of casting is perhaps the most obvious example, with the infamous dictator being played, unusually, as a Geordie.
“I walked into the audition room and just put on a Geordie accent and got very angry at things,” chuckles Ellis, “and that seemed to work.”
“When people ask, our official version is that we have a Geordie Stalin because the real Stalin was Georgian. It’s definitely not something we only figured out two days after the auditions…”
Regional accents aside, Berrington’s production has some marked changes from the original, which first hit the National Theatre in 2011. Comparing Ellis’s Stalin to that of Simon Russell Beale, who played the General Secretary in the original, Berrington points out: “Jack’s Stalin is very different from Simon Russell Beale’s. Beale’s had a crazy-behind-the-eyes look about him, whereas Jack’s is more two-tone. When his character breaks, it’s even more unexpected and even more terrifying.”
“When Jack emerges…it’s like he’s coming straight out of hell.” – Berrington
Berrington also takes into account the obvious link to Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin, a film which likewise deals with the bleak humour of the USSR (whilst also coincidentally starring Simon Russell Beale). “I wanted to avoid The Death of Stalin in case I nicked too many ideas,” he admits, “I’m a massive Armando Iannucci fan – I knew that if I saw the film, I wouldn’t be able to resist stealing from it.”
The production’s technical side has also received an equally large helping of NNT creativity. The lighting takes a key role this time round, with different effects being used to heighten the play’s unsettling elements. “We have really gone for big light displays: lots of different LEDs, including red ones all around the staging to make it look like a boiler room,” Berrington explains, referring to the damp and decrepit environment in which Bulgakov (played by Callum Walker) and his wife Yelena (Margaux Valarché) find themselves living.
The supernatural side to the production, which sees Stalin himself (or is it?) repeatedly appearing before the troubled writer, is further emphasised by the use of lighting. “The cupboard is backlit,” Berrington points out, nodding to the wardrobe from which a vision of the dictator emerges to maraud Bulgakov’s paranoid mind. “When Jack emerges from it, it looks as though he’s coming straight out of hell.”
An ambitious play, Collaborators has not been the easiest thing to prepare for. Despite the reasonably large cast of dissidents, secret policemen and questionable medical practitioners, most of the script’s action revolves around the meetings – real or imagined – between Bulgakov and Stalin.
“The rehearsal process has been quite interesting,” considers Ellis, “The Stalin stuff is all very self-contained. The play begins with me exiting the cupboard and ends with me entering it again.”
Consequently, the Stalin we see on stage has little interaction with characters other than Walker’s Bulgakov. Ellis explains further: “As it’s just two people, Callum and I locked ourselves in a room for hours and worked through the scenes. We’ve only had group rehearsals for the last couple of weeks, so that we can slot everything together.”
“…a play that deals with the mental anguish of a writer and his friends during one of the grimmest points in history…”
“From my perspective, this play was a duologue until two weeks ago.”
“The rehearsal process [for Ellis and Walker] was effectively psychological torture but in a very fun setting,” Berrington adds.
Perhaps this sentiment, more than anything, gets to the heart of Collaborators as a piece of theatre. Here is a play that deals with the mental anguish of a writer and his friends during one of the grimmest points in history, but does so with exceptionally sharp humour. “You never see comedies about a topic as dark as this that can deal with it in such a satirically wonderful way,” explains Berrington.
“I want people to leave this show and say: ‘I have no idea what just happened but I absolutely loved it’.”
The feeling is shared by Ellis, who sums up the play with true proletarian precision: “The first half is quite comical, the second is a lot darker. When the audience leaves, I hope they simply go: ‘bloody hell, where did that come from?’”
Collaborators is on at the Nottingham New Theatre 29 November – 2 December.
Play poster courtesy of Nottingham New Theatre.
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