By John Hodge
Directed by Nicholas Hytner
Venue: Cottesloe Theatre
Date: Werdnesday 14th December 2011
I don’t know how easy it will be to record my impressions of a piece that was both flamboyant and surreal. It was inspired by a play which Bulgakov actually wrote about Stalin’s early life, but which was never performed. It seems to have been part of the Soviet state’s process of playing mind games with dissidents and opponents, and this play reflects that aspect in its imaginary journey through the writing process.
In this play, Bulgakov is commissioned to write a play about Stalin in his younger days, for the great man’s 60th birthday celebrations. It’s meant to be a surprise for Stalin, but of course he knows all about it, and even joins in the creative process. In fact, he does more than join in, he writes the whole thing from beginning to end, scene by scene. Bulgakov only writes a final scene at the behest of a disillusioned NKVD officer in order to expose the truth about comrade Stalin. This scene was soon burned, and the play itself was never seen, because it was all a ploy to subvert Bulgakov into becoming a state stooge.
While he’s working hard at the typewriter, Stalin asks Bulgakov to do some of his government work – a fair division of labour. With a pretence of world-weary frankness, Stalin feeds Bulgakov little titbits to begin with, such as writing notes on steel production reports from the various parts of the vast Soviet Union and signing his mate Joe’s initials. When Bulgakov sees the results – reports of production up by 5% week on week – the nature of creative fiction under an oppressive regime takes on a new twist; Bulgakov wrote his plays and then (occasionally) saw them come to life, Stalin wrote his notes and then subsequent reports create the ‘reality’ he wanted. It’s an intriguing idea, and we get enough time to register it before moving on to the next phase.
During their next meeting Bulgakov is faced with an ethical dilemma. A city needs grain to feed its workers; the local farmers have grain but won’t give up enough of it because they need to feed themselves and their families, and have enough seed for next year’s harvest. What to do? Bulgakov makes his choice, and when he hears of the consequences, he’s shocked. Later, though, his feelings of guilt lead him to defend the government’s actions.
His next decision seems easier. He sees three confessions signed by men Stalin trusted absolutely, confessing that they were plotting against him. Stalin appears unaware of these confessions, and when Bulgakov tells him, he throws an almighty wobbly. To calm him down, Bulgakov suggests carrying out further investigations, and even writes that on the confessions – ‘carry out further investigations’. This calms Stalin down nicely, but at what cost? As the ‘further investigations’ are carried out, more and more people are arrested, and the apparent conspiracy which Bulgakov has helped uncover comes closer and closer to home.
When Bulgakov shows some stirrings of conscience, Stalin stops writing the play to concentrate on studying the conspiracy files. To help him out, Bulgakov rashly suggests a quota system; instead of investigating every case, just do some, and winnow out the traitors that way. Stalin was so taken with this idea that for their next meeting he asked Bulgakov to sign the death orders for the quotas of traitors to be killed and those to be sent to camps or into exile. Now, suddenly, Bulgakov draws the line; these are no longer numbers, they’re individual human beings, and he can’t go along with this job swap any more.
Stalin seems OK with this; he’s got what he wanted, so the final step doesn’t really matter. By now, Bulgakov’s friends have either deserted him or have disappeared. His wife is taken, and as Bulgakov finally collapses on his bed, dying, we see her put through a mock execution, one of the NKVD’s favourite pastimes. The play ends as Yelena, Bulgakov’s wife, finds her husband dead on the bed. The phone rings, and it’s Stalin’s voice asking if it’s true that Bulgakov is dead. She doesn’t answer, the line goes dead, and the lights go out.
This is a very simplified version of the story. In performance, many elements were interwoven, but without losing track of where we were and who was who – a remarkable feat. For example, as the scenes of the play are written and handed over to Vladimir, an NKVD officer and director of the new play, we see them performed by two actors, one young and handsome, the other older. The younger one plays the young Stalin in a noble and heroic style, with gestures and poses reminiscent of Soviet propaganda films of the time. The other actor takes on most of the other parts – prison guard, priest at the seminary, young woman who’s passionately in love with Stalin, etc. His performance as the young woman was particularly funny.
The set was on long sweep of acting space that pushed right across the Cottesloe with the seats wrapped around it. To our left was the kitchen area, with the large cupboard which was Sergei’s bedroom – space was short in those days. A walkway sloped down to the central area which held the typewriter on its table in the middle and the gramophone on the far side. To the right, the stage sloped up again to the bedroom. There were lots of angles to the floor – must have been a nightmare walking on it – and around the whole platform there was space to walk, with a lamppost in the far right corner. This lower walkway also came back up onto the stage on the other side of the central section, so there were lots of potential entrances, including the cupboard doors.
In fact, the opening scene made good use of these doors. Bulgakov was having a nightmare in which Stalin emerged from the cupboard and chased him round the flat, finally grabbing the typewriter and using it to smash Bulgakov over the head. Only we didn’t see that bit; the lights went out and when they came back again Bulgakov was sitting on the bed and Stalin had disappeared. It was a very funny sequence, with appropriate chase music to accompany it, and both actors going completely over the top. At one point, they were facing each other across the table and screaming – hilarious.
It’s a long time after that before we see Stalin again, and in the meantime we meet Bulgakov’s flatmates, and learn about medical treatment in the Soviet Union. Bulgakov is hoping for a diagnosis for his tiredness and other symptoms, but it’s unlikely he’ll get very far with the doctor assigned to him. This chap remembers watching one of Bulgakov’s plays many years before, and being scandalised by the nakedness of a very attractive young actress on the stage. He was even more shocked the next night, when he went back and sat even closer, and even more the night after that, and so on. He kept asking Bulgakov if he knew where the actress was now, as he’d love to get in touch with her. Bulgakov hadn’t a clue, of course, so he had to keep fobbing him off. Later, when Bulgakov is temporarily back in favour, he’s taken to the top hospital, the one where all the top men at the politburo are treated, and although it’s the same doctor, the experience is completely different. The doctor’s smartened up, he has a pretty young nurse – she used to be an actress, but he’s taken her away from all that – and miraculously, Bulgakov’s kidney disease has disappeared. No trace of it at all! Since Bulgakov trained as a doctor, he knows that can’t be true, but the doctor simply gives him a prescription for good food, and that’s it.
The action moves smoothly from there to the setting of the tables for a grand feast, and that’s where the interval was taken. The restart was at the end of the feast, and this is where Bulgakov hears about the fate of the grain farmers. We’d seen The Grain Store back in 2009 which told the story of the famine from the Ukrainian point of view, so we could fill out the story with a greater awareness of the suffering.
Following this feast, we see the session where the confessions are discovered, and from here people start to disappear. Bulgakov is even taken with Vladimir to the arrest of a married couple. The husband’s only ‘crime’ is having ‘objective characteristics’ which could mean he’s part of the conspiracy, while her only ‘crime’ is to be the wife of such a man. When he returns home, Bulgakov finds that their flatmates have gone, and before long Vladimir has also disappeared, with his second-in-command taking over as director of the play. The play has a noticeably darker tone in this second half, as there are fewer people to present the different perspectives. Even Sergei, the committed socialist, is taken away, so that only Bulgakov and Yelena remain, and with his death, she’s on her own.
Early in this play, we saw part of a performance of Bulgakov’s play Molière, showing the death of that playwright during a performance of The Hypochondriac. This was reprised at the end of this play as Bulgakov lay dying on his bed, and the lines about marking the day with a black cross applied to Bulgakov just as well as Molière. Of course, that was the point of Bulgakov’s play, to satirise the Soviet state and Stalin, but sadly it wasn’t as well hidden a satire as it needed to be – the play was banned and had very few performances in Bulgakov’s lifetime. In this play, it’s the carrot that Stalin holds out to keep Bulgakov going, the prospect that Molière will finally be staged. The stick, much in evidence in the later scenes, is the threat against his wife Yelena. Between these two, Bulgakov is easily led where Stalin wants him to go.
The pace was pretty fast throughout this play, even though Simon Russell Beale and Alex Jennings held some longish pauses during their scenes together. The scenes flowed one into the other, with characters simply turning from one scene to appear in the next. They kept the sense of place going very clear, though, even when there was more than one location being shown on stage at a time; good use of lighting helped here. The humour was another fine aspect of this play, with lots of it in the first half, and while there was less in the second half that was entirely appropriate in the circumstances. This is a cracking good production, and we hope to get another chance to see it in the Olivier to appreciate it even more.
© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me