‘Collaborators’ opened to the flustered but undeniably exciting tune of ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King,’ with the dream scene of a terrified Mikhail Bulgakov (Rory Fraser) being pursued by the ominous figure of Stalin (Joe Peden). This opening scene perfectly captured the essence of the play, which follows the dark and chaotic story of a playwright attempting to escape the influence of one of history’s most famous dictators.
The story is set in late 1930’s Moscow, centered around the overcrowded flat which Bulgakov and his wife share with a variety of different characters. Bulgakov has written and staged a play with a potentially subversive message, resulting in a visit from a member of the secret police, Vladimir (Callum Coghlan). This well-played character is a brilliant introduction to the dark humour which is central throughout the play.
“it grows to strike a balance between the humorous and the macabre”
Following this visit, Bulgakov is recruited by Vladimir to write a play based on Stalin, for the leaders 60th birthday. The playwright struggles with this task initially as it conflicts with many of his principles, however, he later receives a mysterious phone call inviting him to a metro station where he will find a secret passage; here he can meet the anonymous caller. What later transpires is a series of meetings between Bulgakov and Stalin, in which Stalin assists the writer in his task. Despite the fact that I was unsure whether these meetings were meant to be based in reality or hallucinations, they provided some of the most interesting scenes in the play. With the lighting design recreating the atmosphere of an interrogation, there is an atmosphere of apprehension in these encounters. Yet, what shone through was the dark humour of Stalin, which Peden portrays with great ease and it was in these moments that the play achieved many of its biggest laughs. However, although these scenes were undeniably amusing, the witty dialogue often meant that they were lacking in the intensity I had expected from a meeting between two characters with such distinct and strong personalities. What is perhaps most interesting is that as Stalin becomes more and more influential in the work of Bulgakov, the playwright becomes more involved in the world of the Soviet leader: this is to have intense consequences for all the characters.
The lay out of the set captured the cramped and difficult lifestyle of those living in the Soviet Union at this time. It is in the early scenes of the play that the audience is introduced to one of my favourite aspects of the set design. A cupboard, which initially appears to be just a piece for decoration, is revealed to be a gateway for different characters to enter and exit the stage. This is used to great humorous effect, with the wonderfully inappropriate interjections of the character Sergei being another comic highlight.
This production is slow to find its feet, with the earlier scenes slightly lacking the tension found in the latter half of the play. However, it grows to strike a balance between the humorous and the macabre which leaves the audience feeling amused and satisfied.
Collaborators is on in the Pilch until the 28th of January.