Well, we never expected to use the words “madcap” and “Stalin” in the same sentence.
It was one of those occasions when it looked as though the Whingers’ theatrical planets were aligning auspiciously but then it turned out that they were actually on a collision course.
Prodding their entrails with a stick (metaphorically) the Whingers had come to the conclusion that all the signs were good: Alex Jennings, Simon Russell Beale, Mark Addy and Nick Sampson in a play by John Hodge (screenwriter of Trainspotting, Shallow Grave) with Nicholas Hytner at the helm.
Even the less promising portents of the Cottesloe Theatre and a “first play” failed to cast a shadow over the Whingers’ sunny outlooks and our usually voluble inner Cassandras were completely caught napping.
Jennings is the playwright Mikhail Bulgakov (he of The White Guard) who was apparently bullied rather by the authorities into writing a play about Stalin as part of the hoopla to commemorate the leader’s 60th birthday. In Hodge’s version, the reluctant Bulgakov’s writer’s block is sidestepped by Stalin himself (SRB) stepping forward to take over the writing and delegating the running of the country to Bulgakov for the hours in which he’s at work on his own hagiography. Hence they become Collaborators. One writes. The other dictates. It could almost be Elaine Paige’s edict “Write it down!”
Inspired by real events which saw Bulgakov go on to produce Batum (retitled Young Joseph here) Stalin decided it was “a very good play…but not to be staged”. Who commissioned Hodge? Was it Nicholas Hytner (curiously his name is an anagram of ‘Stalin crony heh’)? Was he disappointed with the result and tucked it away in the Cottesloe, knowing that a starry cast would sell out the current run before the previews? If only Stalin had had his own Cottesloe.
Though what Mr Stalin would have made of the in-the-round staging is anyone’s guess. Would he have complained that Beale’s spirited Stalin gained a laugh from one side of the audience by a mere expression yet left the unsighted side mute? Or that when Addy’s NKVD officer appeared with scars on his face and puts it down to “shaving” one side of the theatre is left in the dark?
Would he have laughed at Hodge’s larky take with Bulgakov occupying such cramped quarters he has a student living in his cupboard? Or having lines put in his mouth like “Killing will get you nowhere” spoken in an accent suggesting he was raised by the Poldarks? Would he appreciate one of the characters Praskovya (Maggie Service) dressed up to look like Olive from On the Buses?
The tone of the madcap first act was set in the opening sequence in which Stalin visits Bulgakov in his nightmare and chases him around the room to some Benny Hill style music. If Mister Hytner was seeking to inject some of the comedy wrangling that made One Man, Two Guvnors such a joy, he failed. Call Cal McCrystal.
Phil was reasonably entertained by the messy Act 1 but during the interval he deemed it overly larky. “Be careful what you wish for” intoned Andrew and sure enough during the altogether drearier Act 2 he was longing for a return of the earlier high jinks.
The best outcome that can be hoped for is that the National Theatre‘s literary department be rewarded with an all expenses paid visit to Siberia for a very long time indeed.