It’s 1938 and the celebrated Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov has just been informed that his latest play is banned. “Don’t you realise what that means to me?” he cries, aghast. “Yes,” replies the secret policeman, drily. “A gap in your schedule.”
It is a blackly comic exchange typical of John Hodge’s vividly funny play about the nightmarish situation of the writer. The gap in his schedule, Bulgakov is told, will come in handy, as he is “respectfully invited” to write a play for Stalin’s 60th birthday. It is not an invitation he is expected to refuse. The NKVD has even kindly found him an office in the notorious Lubyanka prison: a venue that would focus any writer’s mind.
Hodge’s drama is based on truth – Bulgakov did write a script about the young Stalin – but spirals off into a wild fantasia that slithers from reality into absurdity with disorientating ease. The surreal style nods in the direction of Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita and draws us into the writer’s feverish mind as he struggles with ill-health, his conscience and his conflicting impulses. But it also conveys the daily absurdity of life in Stalin’s Russia, in which a factory worker may live in your cupboard, hot water come and go at whim and people may be shot as traitors because they display “objective characteristics”.
On Bob Crowley’s tilting, zigzag set, Nicholas Hytner’s sprightly production captures this slippery world. In the most surreal sequences, Bulgakov embarks on a series of secret trysts with Stalin. The leader offers to help out by writing the play for him, in exchange for the playwright doing a bit of paperwork. As Stalin bangs away on the typewriter, Bulgakov finds himself first signing off on steel quotas, then on execution orders. It’s a sequence that brilliantly conveys the slow erosion of principle and certainty involved in collaboration.
Simon Russell Beale and Alex Jennings deliver these scenes superbly. Russell Beale, as Stalin, is completely mesmerising, beginning full of cordial informality, but slowly revealing the cold, hard steel beneath the avuncular act. Jennings’s tense, waxy Bulgakov suggests his character’s appalled fascination with his tormentor and his ghastly realisation that he has been played.
There is fine work from the supporting cast, particularly Mark Addy as a chillingly jovial policeman. And though the style wears thin in places, this dark comedy conveys the impossible choices facing any artist in a dictatorship.
Broadcast in National Theatre Live season on December 1