National Theatre Live Broadcast, Thursday 1st December, 2011
Nicholas Hytner directs this new piece in-the-round at the Cottesloe. While this doesn’t really come across in the cinema broadcast (only rarely do we glimpse audience members) there is still a sense that the characters, in Stalin’s Moscow, are being watched all the time.
Playwright Bulgarkov (Alex Jennings) is an “enemy of the State”, his work about Moliere is deemed to be subversive and is forced to close on its opening night. In order for it to be staged again, Bulgarkov is blackmailed by a secret policeman (Mark Addy) into dramatising the early years of their glorious leader’s life, as a surprise birthday present. Addy’s persuasive techniques include mock executions and so, understandably, Bulgarkov agrees.
A mysterious phone call in the night leads Bulgarkov to a secret room beneath the Kremlin where he is met by the man who haunts his recurring nightmares, Stalin himself. The dictator is portrayed by Simon Russell Beale as an avuncular type, a bumbling peasant who has somehow found himself in a position of supreme power. Stalin (Call me Joseph) is brimming with ideas for the play (there are no secrets in his USSR) and before long is sitting at the typewriter and bashing out melodramatic propaganda – We are treated to performances of these scenes, with Young Joseph portrayed as a dashing matinee idol-cum-superhero. So far, so hilarious.
The play takes a darker turn when Joseph asks Bugarkov to occupy himself with some of his burdensome paperwork while he, the dictator, does the playwright’s job. Before long, Bulgarkov is increasing productivity in steel mills and sending soldiers to requisition grain supplies from starving villages with a flourish of a red pencil. At dinner parties, Bulgarkov expresses views that show his sympathies have altered, if not changed altogether. Meanwhile, the people around him are starting to disappear, arrested following orders he authorised.
It transpires that Stalin was behind the whole thing. Rather than imprison or execute the subversive and popular writer, he chose to break him instead, to change his viewpoint through a process of seemingly benevolent attrition. And so, the bumbling uncle is revealed at last to be the sinister figure of Bulgarkov’s nightmares. Bulgarkov dies, his work restored to the Moscow stage, but he is a broken man. “It is a battle between man and monster,” Stalin reminds him, “and the monster always wins.”
This is a remarkable play (the first from screenwriter John Hodge), for its entertainment value and its hard-hitting undertones that gradually seep to the surface. As I reflect on it now, the morning after, I can’t help but see a cheeky parallel with Nick Clegg, slowly infected with the ideology of a monster… Or is that me just being subversive?