There is a famous West End photograph of an impresario as puppet master called “Binkie pulls the strings,” an image replicated on the programme cover for John Hodge’s fascinating new play about Joe Stalin and Mikhail Bulgakov, the latter tangled up in his master’s typewriter.
While it’s true that the dissident playwright accepted a commission to write a celebratory play about Young Stalin while secretly sweating over his last great novel, The Master and Margarita, Hodge goes further and suggests a Faustian pact in which Bulgakov in effect becomes an instrument of the Great Terror.
This outrageous calumny is a small price to pay for the real theatrical point, which is that of any complicity between politician and artist, manager and worker, National Theatre boss and employee. In a series of underground meetings, Stalin takes over the writing himself while Bulgakov signs off the steel order ultimatums.
It’s a brilliant metaphor, and Nicholas Hytner’s fluent, entertaining production scores several bulls eyes: the creative resuscitation of a failed film project by the screenwriter of Trainspotting and Shallow Grave (Hodge pays full acknowledgement to Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Stalin biography); the electric reunion of two of the NT’s signature stars, Alex Jennings and Simon Russell Beale; and a dreamscape setting by Bob Crowley in a reconfigured Cottesloe of a ziggurat-style pathway through the audience and Bulgakov’s apartment, littered with inserted and spiritedly performed extracts of his banned play about Moliѐre.
Jennings’ Bulgakov is a stylish, tortured figure, bending to the necessities of art and the loyalty of his wife (nicely done by Jacqueline Defferary), hypnotised even by Stalin’s bullish enthusiasm and sleight of mind; those characteristics are at the heart of Russell Beale’s vocally adroit performance, more casually callous than you’d expect and only scuppered by a wig that sticks out at the back like a china shell, revealing a hedge of real hair beneath.
This shocking lapse apart, Hytner’s production is impeccable, with a third notably fine performance from Mark Addy as a theatre-struck secret policeman, directing the new play with a gun at his belt. William Postlethwaite makes a mark, too, as a young writer whom Bulgakov can’t save, while Pierce Reid is a revolutionary worker consigned to the writer’s cupboard and Nick Sampson a scrofulous doctor transformed by everyday corruption and lust for an actress.