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Review Round-up: Beale & Jennings Are NT Collaborators

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John Hodge, who wrote the screenplays for Trainspotting, Shallow Grave and The Beach, among others, has written a new play about the relationship between Stalin and playwright Mikhail Bulgakov, which premiered at the NT Cottesloe last night (1 November 2011, previews from 25 October).

Starring National Theatre stalwarts Simon Russell Beale and Alex Jennings, Collaborators is inspired by historical truth and sees Bulgakov put in an unenviable position when he's apporached by the Russian dictator to pen a play for his 60th birthday.

Directed by Nicholas Hytner, the cast also features Mark Addy, Sarah Annis, Marcus Cunningham, Jacqueline Defferary, Patrick Godfrey, Michael Jenn, Jess Murphy, William Postlethwaite, Pierce Reid, Nick Sampson, Maggie Service and Perri Snowdon.

Michael Coveney

"Nicholas Hytner’s fluent, entertaining production scores several bulls eyes: the creative resuscitation of a failed film project; the electric reunion of two of the NT’s signature stars, Alex Jennings and Simon Russell Beale; and a dreamscape setting by Bob Crowley … 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 … Hytner’s production is impeccable, with a third notably fine performance from Mark Addy ... William Postlethwaite makes a mark too.”

Michael Billington

"John Hodge is an honest man. He admits his new play about the relationship between Josef Stalin and the writer Mikhail Bulgakov derives from a film which was never made. But, while the result has a quirky vitality and yields two outstanding performances, its satire does not strike its intended target ... While it is true that there are well-known accounts of the umbilical connection between the two, the play's practical result is to diminish Bulgakov; he becomes an emblem of the fatally compromised artist, whereas today he is remembered for the audacity of his attacks on the Soviet ethos, such as The Heart of a Dog, Molière, and The Master and Margarita … While I may question Hodge's arguments, his play has a nightmarish vivacity well captured in Nicholas Hytner's freewheeling production on Bob Crowley's zig-zagging traverse stage. And, if Bulgakov is seen as a reluctant victim of a brutal system, Alex Jennings memorably endows him with an extra-textual complexity."

Libby Purves
The Times

"Ought John Hodge, screenwriter of Trainspotting, to be encouraged to distort into an absurdist nightmare the historical fact that Mikhail Bulgakov, a liberal dissident terrified for his wife, was ordered to write an admiringly biographical play about Joe Stalin’s youth? Yes. Nicholas Hytner has commissioned, and directs, something odd, but rare and special ... The first act is almost criminally funny: we meet Bulgakov (Alex Jennings) … He is summoned to nocturnal meetings with Stalin himself, deep below the Kremlin … The rest of the play is a study in corruption interspersed with imaginary sections of the work-in-progress … This is about serious things: corruption, exploitation, the mutual fascination of the powerful and the artist. But it dares to be dryly funny. As when Mark Addy as Vladi the stage-struck KGB man, says, ‘I want a rich and fruitful creative relationship, and I appreciate that in my role as producer/director I may have overstepped the mark in threatening to shoot your wife.’”

Charles Spencer
Daily Telegraph

"John Hodge’s gripping, disturbing and often blackly comic drama attempts to get inside the writer’s head … The piece breaks the surly bonds of realism, which is perhaps the only way to tackle the monstrous cruelty and terror of Stalin’s regime … Nicholas Hytner’s giddily disorienting production, with an ingenious in-the-round design by Bob Crowley … There is a fine supporting cast, with especially fine work from Jacqueline Defferary as Bulgakov’s loving anxious wife, and Mark Addy as a terrifyingly cheery secret policeman. But this production will be best remembered for its dream-casting of Alex Jennings as the harassed, haunted Bulgakov and Simon Russell Beale as a Stalin … Jennings’ sweaty anxiety as Bulgakov finds himself traped by his tormentor’s devious wiles is superbly caught … This is a truly tremendous double act which thrills chills and makes you laugh out loud - even though you know you shouldn’t."

Henry Hitchings
Evening Standard

"It is a striking vision of artistic compromise, personal sacrifice and political brutality, rendered in what is often a somewhat Blackadderish style. And Nicholas Hytner's agile production is illuminated by fine performances from two of the National Theatre's stalwarts, Alex Jennings and Simon Russell Beale. Hodge's writing is a tribute to Bulgakov's anarchic spirit. It is farcical and quirky, episodic and surreal. Yet it is more layered than it at first appears … While there are moments when the absurdity seems excessive, it is satisfyingly inventive … Russell Beale's Stalin, introduced in a zany Benny Hill sequence, is at times almost huggable … the performance darkens impressively. Mark Addy is robustly enjoyable as secret policeman Vladimir, and Patrick Godfrey and Nick Sampson provide strong support. There is also a memorable set by Bob Crowley and ingenious music by George Fenton. The production is knowingly cartoonish, albeit with touches of grim nightmare. Staging the play in the round does not seem ideal, as details of the physical comedy are now and then invisible. But while not all the satire hits the mark, Collaborators is fresh and energetic, with a thick, throbbing vein of grotesque humour."

Quentin Letts
Daily Mail

"The show opens with a silent dream sequence in which Stalin, after much banging on doors and a burst of white-lit smoke, enters Bulgakov’s flat via the wardrobe and clubs the seditious scribe with a typewriter … Beale does this with a manic, cartoon gleam. He has the tweaked-up fringe of a provincial mayor. Bulgakov is done with amiable dreaminess by Alex Jennings. Jennings is always lovely to watch, even if he lacks some intensity. Look out; too, for Mark Addy as a secret policeman of the geezer variety … The production is dominated by Beale. He gives Stalin a strange accent which wobbles between Cockney and camp Gloucestershire. Pam Ayres meets Dr Strangelove by way of Benny Hill ... The performance is a bit of a mess but Beale is always compulsive viewing. Maybe crazy caricature is the only way of starting to capture Stalin in a two-and-a-half-hour tragi-comedy. We start to see Stalin’s evil genius when he compromises Bulgakov by giving him a taste of executive power."

- Kieran Johnson


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