This review was originally written for Cherwell
‘Illuminated brilliantly by Jordan Reed and Timothy Coleman, Collaborators is a subtly disquieting story of one man’s changing relationship with communism, and with Stalin himself’
When John Hodge’s Olivier award winning debut play, Collaborators, was first staged in 2011, critics praised the gripping, faintly disturbing aura that imbued its central relationship; that between Soviet playwright Mikhail Bulgakov’s and dictator Joseph Stalin. The interpretation currently being performed in the Oxford Union’s debating chamber is similarly praiseworthy for its subtly disquieting air, distilled brilliantly by Jordan Reed and Timothy Coleman as the two protagonists.
Collaborators tells the story of Bulgakov’s attempt to construct a play about Stalin for the dictator’s 60th birthday celebrations. Torn between his counter-revolutionary instincts and his safety, Bulgakov agrees and begins to explore Stalin’s life with help from the man himself. As the two become friendlier, Bulgakov begins to question his own political standpoint, to sympathise with the difficulties of leading a communist state, and to understand the motives of the infamous autocrat.
Reed’s portrayal of Bulgakov is laced with a commendable realism; he embodies the world-wearied playwright superbly, sighing, indignantly protesting, and achieving an emotional depth that is simultaneously believable and relatable. Coleman’s unsettlingly gleeful Stalin is equally understated. He is paradoxically likeable, almost endearing, whilst retaining a degree of menace. It is Reed and Coleman’s interaction, their chemistry, which is most engaging however. Their developing relationship is entirely convincing and one can easily understand Bulgakov’s growing sympathy for Stalin’s regime as a result of the dictator’s persuasively appealing manner.
Adam Diaper is absorbing as Vladmir, the intimating secret policeman with artistic pretensions who gradually becomes disenchanted with the oppressive administration, Duncan Cornish is darkly comic as a sexually-deprived doctor, and Hannah Kelly is adept as Yelena, Bulgakov’s despairing wife.
Bridget Dru and Saskia Lumley direct with confidence and dynamism. Collaborators is staged on three levels and action transitions between these areas. Scenes overlap, a mutable pace only sporadically transgresses into dawdle or rush, and a sense of potential volatility is generally maintained throughout. Some group scenes are decidedly clunky, but as the plays themes grow darker, this laudably unsettling atmosphere draws one in and the denouement isn’t far shy of captivating.
At around 2½ hours long, Collaborators is decidedly heavy drama, yet its gritty plot, refreshingly understated acting and notably self-assured direction rarely fail to hold one’s attention. On the surface, it is the story of one man’s attitude towards an oppressive communistic regime, yet at heart it is a compelling and profound account of the relationship between two fundamentally opposed individuals.