The play Collaborators, by John Hodge, is more surrealistic fantasy than historically accurate. Although darkly witty in places and led by two fantastic performances by Alex Jennings, who plays Bulgakov, and Simon Russell Beale, who plays Stalin, John Hodge’s attempts to turn a staunchly critical writer of Stalin into a collaborator are curious, given what is now known about Bulgakov’s career
The play sensationalizes the conflict between Bulgakov and Stalin as a battle between a man and a monster, in which Bulgakov is ultimately doomed to crumble against the terrible power of Stalin. In this satirical telling, Bulgakov becomes a Faustian artist drawn by frustration and ego into a pact with the devil. As the play continues Bulgakov suddenly finds himself switching roles with the monster, with Stalin writing the propagandistic play and Bulgakov with the odious task of commanding KGB assassinations. Inadvertently, this leads to the Great Purge of Stalin’s Russia, which kills Bulgakov’s friends one by one.
Collaborators is based on the historical facts and events surrounding Bulgakov in 1930s Russia. During this time government censorship had ruined his career since both the publication of his work and the production of his plays had been banned. As a desperate measure Bulgakov sent a personal letter to Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Government, exasperatingly requesting that they either allow him to work as a writer in his homeland or allow him to leave and find artistic satisfaction elsewhere. Stalin replied to him personally, via telephone, and asked him a vital question; do you really desire to leave the Soviet Union? Bulgakov, realizing that his fate could be sealed with his next few utterances, replied that a Russian writer cannot live outside of his homeland. Satisfied with this response Stalin granted him permission to re-join the theatre.
Watch a short trailer of the Collaborators played in the National Theatre:
Contrastingly Simon McBurney’s production of The Master and the Margarita offers a tempestuous insight into Bulgakov’s mental processes as he wrote under the Stalinist regime, as well as dramatizing some of the novel itself. The streets of Moscow are transformed into a fantastical horror show by production designers Es Devlin and Luke Halls. The play’s intricately plotted narrative and sudden shifts of tone and style mirror the complex and multifaceted layers of the book in which narratives intertwine and a carnivalesque reversal of norms takes hold. McBurney’s main focus for his rendition of The Master and Margarita is the redemptive power of love, which the characters find in both the figure of Margarita and Christ. He also focuses on sensuality which weaves through the play.
Seeking to challenge the notion of the lead narration, McBurney decided to have the two male leads, the stricken writer Master and the satanic Woland who played by the same actor, Paul Rhys. Rhys performs like a man possessed; displaying both sides of Bulgakov’s tormented protagonists. Sinéad Matthews’ Margarita is the savior of Rhys’ Master, and her performance is absorbing, as well as fearless as she spends most of the second half naked while either hosting a diabolical party of flying.
The Master and Margarita had ran for several months at London’s Barbican in early 2012 and was subsequently toured in Austria, Holland, Spain and France. Collaborators has finished its run at the National Theatre in London in May 2012.
Watch a short interview Simon McBurney as he discusses The Master and Margarita below: