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.