Tag Archives: Cottesloe

“The Effect” by Lucy Prebble

at the Cottesloe Theatre, Wednesday 19th December 2012

Anyone who knows me will know that I’m a bit of a science fanatic. If there’s any topic which is likely to come up in a conversation with me other than theatre, it’s likely to be quantum physics, the cosmos or the like. Lucy Prebble’s The Effect, therefore, satisfies both these passions of mine, indulging each to excess and leaving me giddy with possibility. Along with director Rupert Goold, she questions the way in which we conduct clinical trials whilst probing the very notion of depression. If Three Kingdoms was my favourite production of 2012, then The Effect is without doubt my favourite play.

The play is essentially a dramatised amalgam of Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science/Pharma and Adam Curtis’ The Trap, involving two young people (Tristan and Connie) involved in a drugs trial for a new anti-depressant which increases dopamine levels in the brain. They fall in love, though its not quite clear whether this is due to the drug or their natural urges. In a beautiful scene, they escape the confines of the trial, heading to a disused asylum to question their attraction to one another; if they’re only falling in love because of the drug, does this make their feelings towards one another any less ‘real’, or is it just the same, seeing as what we call ‘love’ is only really a release of chemicals in the brain and around the body anyway.

If you haven’t seen the play yet and don’t want it spoiled, skip this paragraph; I’m about to set out the rest of the narrative, as I feel it’s important to a discussion of the ideas of the play. It transpires, towards the end of the first act that one of them is on a placebo, acting as a control patient for the trial. At the beginning of act two, Connie finds out this is Tristan, instantly making her question her feelings towards him and cementing her belief that he genuinely has feelings for her. About a scene later, however, Toby, the overseer of the trial, tells Dr Lorna James, the clinical psychiatrist conducting it that in actual fact she is the one being tested for practitioner bias and that Tristan is indeed on the drug after all. She was told about the placebo so they could see if it would change her behaviour. Connie, however, believing Tristan is not on the drug, slips him another dosage, causing him to seizure and lose his memory. During the last few scenes of the play, we see Lorna in a state of deep depression and Tristan being looked after by Connie after undergoing complete loss of memory.

Prebble’s text is extraordinary. She manages to explain all the central ideas and scientific concepts of the play without ever using exposition and creates some gloriously intricate scenes, like the one in the asylum and the final scenes between Connie and Tristan which move from day to day in a similar fashion to Duncan Macmillan’s Lungs. The discussion between Lorna and Toby about the nature of depression – whether it is a curable disease or simply a fact of life which has been exploited for financial gain – says more about this debate than many experts have in countless books.

Broadly, the questions raised by the script about clinical trials and depression are embodied by the design and performances respectively.

Miram Buether’s design immediately unnerves and unsettles. Walking into the pit of the Cottesloe, we are surrounded by lime green; it’s on the walls (which are padded, by the way), on our upholstered seats (the most comfortable I’ve sat on during a play) and on the plush carpet floor, which also has a frame of red. Bright, institutionalised strip lights on the floor and ceiling are countered with the dim, homely lamps surrounding us. Opposite us and to the sides are more ‘patients’ and the performances happen in the middle. Jon Driscoll’s projections appear on the floor and on the walls, shifting focus. Sometimes, Jon Clark’s lighting is so dim we can only see outlines and Sarah Angliss’ music is imperceptible enough to make us wonder if it is a figment of the imagination.

The immediate question the design raises is this: how is any kind of reputable, scientific trial which is supposed to benefit humanity able to occur here? It’s comfortable enough, but when measuring dopamine, a chemical which can affect who we are, surely the surrounding should be a little more, well, human. Prebble asks questions about confirmation bias (when the practitioner sees what they want to see based on hypotheses) and Buether’s set suggests that with as blank a canvas as this it’s no surprise any interpretation can be found to suit the sponsor’s needs. The many images of scanned brains, graphs and grids nod towards the neurobabble the production is taking a swipe at, suggesting we be more critical next time we read about fMRI scanners.

Goold’s direction mingles with the design to link the two themes of trials and depression. Often the stage becomes a split screen (at one point we can even see the seam), so that two similar scenes happen simultaneously, enforcing the contracting methods and ideas. After Tristan and Connie have been separated, they move around Dr James to ask her many questions about the other, mirroring one another’s movements and following the same contours in their conversation. Placebo is placed in opposition with drug, health with illness, depression with ‘normality’.

The most interesting argument in the piece comes from that final point, and its the one which will get the most people talking and spark the most debate. After hearing Curtis’ thoughts on depression, his belief that it is a normal fact of modern life (at any one time one in five of suffers from mental health problems) which pharmaceutical companies have capitalised on is hard to shake. Prebble addition to this that mild- to mid- ‘depression’ causes the person effected to see the world and its problems more clearly suggests that it is actually are view of normality which is problematic.

Tom Goodman-Hill (Toby) and Anastasia Hille (Lorna) embody the opposing viewpoints perfectly, and both seem equally plausible. Though Toby has an incentive to peddle antidepressants, his research does seem to be thorough and the suggestion that depression will be curable in the future is extremely engaging, whilst Lorna’s arguably more progressive response is problematised by her own issues. Their best moments come during mirroring scenes, when lecturing the audience on the nature of the brain; Goodman-Hill is authoritative and enlightening, whilst Hille in her act two scene breaks down in an uncontrollable sadness. Her performance throughout is, consistently, utterly believable.

As the patients, Jonjo O’Neill and Billie Piper are exquisitely matched and each show both physical and mental change due to the events of the play. O’Neill’s happy-go-lucky Irish charm is refreshing, making his final scenes all the more heartbreaking, and Piper grows as an individual even though she ends up arguably less ‘happy’ than she was. But have these changes in their personality been caused by chemical shifts or are they effects of their surroundings?

The very fact that Goold and Prebble chose to stage a play which tackles neuroscience and confirmation bias is commendable enough in itself. That The Effect is a resounding success is therefore worthy of utter admiration. It is a play which – appropriately – lodges itself deep within the brain and alters the way things are ordered and perceived. These debates have been going for years and will continue for a long time to come, but by placing them on a National Theatre stage they should begin to enter the public consciousness. As things stand, too many decisions are being made by too few people; with regards to such a moral question which effects people’s lives, however, the more of us educated about and involved in the debate the better.

“This House” by James Graham

at the Cottesloe Theatre, Wednesday 26th September 2012

Comparisons between This House and The Thick of It are inevitable (not least because Vincent Franklin appears in both) but important. The fact that this new sort of biting, honest satire is popular at the moment demonstrates the general distrust of the political elite and their system. We all utilise a kind of doublethink, believing that we’re excersising our democratic right by voting but knowing deep down that it makes a negligible difference. This sort of satire helps that disappointment become more palatable, as we are allowed to laugh at those who are supposed to be the best brains and leaders in the country.

James Graham’s This House manages to do that whilst offering up a deeply human look at the workings behind parliament. The play tells the story of the 1974-9 parliament, showing how both parties did all they could to win a majority with each vote. The narrative thrust centres around the two whip offices, with Deputy Chief Whips Walter Harrison and Jack Weatherill providing the beating heart of the Labour and Conservative benches respectively.

Graham says in his programme note that the reason he chose to write about this parliament “is because the truth itself is so remarkable”, as ill and dieing MPs were wheeled into the Houses of Parliament to vote so their party could win by a narrow majority, and had to beg the “odds and sods” to vote with them. Naturally, one’s own politics very much come into play here, but to me This House is a loud plea for an overhall of our current system. As we are at one point told, Britain is one of the few democracies to have parliamentary parties sat opposite one another in order to argue rather than sat with one another in order to cooperate, causing friction and rivalries where there could be compromise and discussion.

Though Graham clearly revels writing these larger-than-life, stoic and principled characters, there are clearly tones which are somewhat sinister. Why should politics (i.e. governing the lives of millions of people) rely so heavily on underhand tactics and sly bargains? On the whole, these ministers are so bound up in their own careers and enmities that they care little about the rest of the country. And though there is a glimmer of truth in Harrison’s “British democracy may work if it weren’t so bloody reliant on people”, that doesn’t get away from the fact that British democracy itself is archaic and nonsensical; if it were created now, the system would look nothing like that.

It’s easy to see the relevencies to our current political concerns. Whether you believe the play is asking us to be thankful that we don’t have a hung parliament or disappointed with what we have is up to you, but Graham clearly echoes things which we’ve been discussing since 2010 like political “cooperation” and “compromise”, where parties have to do deals with parties they’d rather not talk to. Equally, the Tories don’t come off well here (when do they?), as they complain about the same old things and talk about their adeptness for government (“Conservative governments fail because they believe they are entitled to power. Labour governments fail because they don’t”), but though it’s clear where Graham’s own sympathies lie, the play is never in danger of becoming partisan. More subtly, the references to the rigged devolution vote in 1979 preceeds what could be an unfair vote in Scotland in 2014.

Graham’s writing isn’t quite as cutting as The Thick Of It (though who said it should be?) and sometimes becomes a bit too descriptive when explaining parliamentary terms (the interjections of “the member for Coventry South-West” etc from the Speaker every time someone enters is also a little frustrating, though perhaps necessary given the number of people). The script is at its best when small, honest discussions are being had, and for this reason two scenes in act two stand out, both of which occur between Harrison and Weatherill. Both dialogues focus around their disguntlement at the way things have turned out as they come to realise they have more in common than they’d like to admit. Played by Philip Glenister and Charles Edwards respectively, they are perfectly matched and each show men trying to do their best with what they’ve got whilst trying to make a difference. They both embody their party’s stereotype – Glenister a rough Northerner and Edwards a prim Southerner – but each recognises their parties are not the simple black-and-white they once were.

Jeremy Herrin’s fast-paced production serves the play well, though it does at times feel a little clumsy. Rae Smith’s design is a small coup, placing a reconstructed House of Commons in the Cottesloe, with the members’ seats and viewing gallery become spaces where the audience watch the theatre of parliament. It’s essentially in traverse with a few more exits and entrances, allowing for some speedy scene changes and montage sequences. I say it’s a little clumsy because effort has been made to include Enron-style movement interludes (but with MPs instead of bankers) and Frantic Assembly-inspired physical theatre (choreographed by Scott Ambler), but they don’t quite seem tight enough. Nonetheless, it’s good to see more directors employing this style and using ensemble casts to create more visually engaging pieces.

One wonderful moment comes in the middle of act two, as discussion begins about whether or not the parliament will last a full five years. Bowie’s “Five Years” is sung (perhaps a little obvious, but it’s a bloody good tune and complements nicely the use of “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” in act one) as the characters congregate on stage in a sombrely directed routine. It’s perhaps a little emotionally manipulative but for some reason it feels truly tragic that this parliament will end soon.

Stephen Warbeck’s score is key in the show’s success, switching from jazz in the early years of the parliament to a more rocky style in later years, accentuating jokes and providing a musical progression to support the narrative movement. Paule Constable’s lighting is fluent, but it does sometimes feel, for want of a better word, flimsy, and it can’t be helped thinking a little more could be done to incorporate it into the production.

The cast are given a plethora of glorious one liners (“This isn’t a parliament, this is fucking purgatory”, “It’s only not perfect because no one has the guts to challenge it”) and move through them brilliantly. In the red corner, Vincent Franklin’s slightly pathetic Michael Cocks takes over after the resignation of Bob Mellish (played here by Howard Ward due to a bereavement in the family of Phil Daniels. Ward read from a script, but it’s testament to the professionalism of the National and its companies that this was of little hindrance). Perhaps one of the most interesting characters in the play is Ann Taylor (the only female whip), played by Lauren O’Neil. She provides a glimmer of what a new future could look like, and is in effect Thatcher’s opposite. Representing the opposition benches, Julian Wadham (playing Chief Whip Humphrey Atkins) is a slimy, old-fashioned being who cannot keep up with the constant movement in this administration.

What This House does so brilliantly is educate and entertain simultaneously (though I was aware of the difficulties which faced this parliament, the details were unknown to me). Graham juggles humour and pathos brilliantly and shows that a system based on tradition and requiring honour to keep it ticking along is in dire need of change. Herrin stage manages this production to show the Labour government were perhaps a little out of their depth and may have done a little too much damage. But as Maggie’s voice rings out in the final moments that “Where there is dischord, may we bring harmony”, it’s difficult not to shudder; this lot may have been bad, but my God they were better than what was to come.

“The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” by Simon Stephens

based on the novel by Mark Haddon

at the Cottesloe Theatre, Monday 27th August 2012

It’s not often that I come out of a production at the National thinking “Yes, that is why this theatre was made”. Hytner’s reign has seen consistently solid work, but rarely does the tripartite of pleasing crowds, pushing boundaries and asking questions come to fruition (I know that’s not the official manifesto, but I think it’s a good thing to ask of any piece of theatre). Simon Stephens’ adaptation of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time does all off these things, however, in a rich production directed by Marianne Elliott.

Looking at the creative team and the final production, it’s clear this is a truly collaborative project. Haddon’s novel feeds into Stephens’ text which feeds into Elliott’s direction, Bunny Christie’s design and the movement work of Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett. Each is linked to the others, with none existing purely on its own. If this is the state of British theatre to come, perhaps we shouldn’t be worrying too much.

The most jarring thing about this production is the framing device Stephens has chosen. The character of Siobhan (Niamh Cusack) is added, acting as both mentor to Stephen and narrator of his story as his book is supposedly transformed into a school play. It’s a sensible move, for otherwise we would just hear the book being read, and as Haddon points out, “Christopher is an outsider”, meaning that he is able to impose this version of events on the play. He is writer, actor and protagonist, playing all simultaneously. Nevertheless, though this school play aspects allows for some sniggers at the beginning of Act Two (“You’re too old to play a policeman”), the ingenious decision to frame the play like this feels underused. Granted, this allows the story to be recounted more clearly, but there’s so much more material here which could be mined for nuance.

Aside from this, it’s a wonderful adaptation of Haddon’s novel. Andrew Haydon’s coining of the term “autistic realism” to describe Stephens’ writing style fits perfectly here considering the subject matter (though, of course, that’s not to sum up autism as one specific thing or trivialise the condition; it merely provides a useful descriptor and conveys the correct feeling). Christopher is, in some respects, the epitomic Stephens violent youth, and thus speaks in much the same way as characters in, for example, Morning, saying exactly what he’s thinking in short, matter-of-fact sentences. Everyone around him – his mother, his father and his neighbours – are all comparatively distant, refusing to speak the truth and failing to communicate.

The comparison to Stephens’ other works is perhaps not very useful, but it’s certainly interesting. Christopher is Stephanie (Morning), William (Punk Rock) and Scott (Herons) all rolled into one with a little extra awkwardness and an even less sympathetic environment. His condition is exacerbated by a largely uncaring adult populace and a confusing, selfish society, while the thrust of the narrative is caused by an early violent act (it’s a dead dog. Sorry to ruin it). Unlike Stephens’ original work, however, there is a little more hope in Haddon’s story, though this version manages to ensure it’s not oversentimentalised. As I say, this comparison isn’t exactly necessary or even watertight, but it’s clear why the pairing has been made.

Christie’s design in effect places Christopher’s mind centre stage, consisting of a scaled-up A4 piece of graph paper onto which images are projected. We see the plan of the neighbourhood drawn in the book and the multitude of signs which Christopher finds it hard to process (to be fair, it’s a wonder any of us manage to find our way around in the giant billboard-cum-public-service-announcement that is London). LED lights in the floor demarcate spaces in this universe and, in conjunction with Paule Constable’s lighting design, confine Christopher in his own safe circles of colour. On the light boxes around the side, props are labelled and placed in an orderly fashion, while prime numbered seats in the auditorium are clearly defined with white covers; our protagonist has clearly created this stage himself.

In case we didn’t notice this triumph of collaborative design already, all the stops are pulled for the epilogue, which sees Christopher demonstrating the solution to the question “Can you prove that a triangle with sides that can be written in the form n2+1, n2-1 and 2n is right-angled ?” He uses all the “tools of the theatre”, including video projection, sound, music and lights to reveal the answer. It makes you wonder why this method of teaching isn’t used in schools (yeah, I know, it costs too much. Boring).

This theme of maths and science runs throughout, and the ‘autistic’ way of looking at these things is actually shown to be a refreshing, rational one. The wonder of the universe is explained in simple, scientific terms, and Christopher’s discussion of the Monty Hall problem shows that joy can be found in mathematics (I now, after years of trying, finally and truly understand it). His questioning of the whereabouts of heaven is a particularly brilliant moment, and sees the rationalism of science pitted against the faith of religion; in a time when atheists are depicted as semi-demonic, it’s refreshing to see someone who doesn’t believe in any kind of deity as purely logical. The simple retort “It’s a fact” is a phrase I may start using in conversation when countering an idiotic argument with hard evidence.

No depiction of Asperger Syndrome can be ‘accurate’, just as no depiction of any minority can be ‘accurate’, but after spending time with my parents (they are both social workers) and bumping into their clients, Luke Treadaway’s performance is certainly a recognisable one. It is supported by a well-painted picture of how society reacts to anyone with difference (condescension, ignorance and anger are three of the most frequent reactions) and nuanced, sympathetic dialogue. The juxtaposing Christopher listening to the letters from his mother with him finding comfort in building a train track is a touching and simple way of illustrating some of the problems individuals with the condition face. This, coupled with the logical progression and confusing beats of Adrian Sutton’s music, means the issues and questions which autism raises are dealt with in a way which educates and raises awareness.

A strong ensemble cast are clearly just as much a part of the collaborative process as the directors and designers. Nicola Walker and Paul Ritter as Christopher’s mother and father both try their hardest to be calm and sympathetic towards their son, but sometimes lose their rag, just as the best of us do, but demonstrate love and attention are invaluable. Una Stubbs, Howard Ward and Nick Sidi all shine in their various roles; the decision to use multi-role-playing is a clever one, for the difficulties sufferers of Asperger’s have in recognising faces and emotions is theatricalised. Cusack and Treadaway are both outsiders to this mad world, and while the former watches from the sidelines, our protagonist is caught up in Graham and Hoggett’s movement, creating beautiful moving images which replicate the chaos of life on stage.

Elliott’s direction is the glue to all this, ensuring the common theme of sympathy runs throughout. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” is, and always has been, a piece about far more than simply the difficulties of living with Asperger’s. This production offers both theatricality and humanity, and asks many more questions along the way. Though this tech-heavy, almost-but-not-quite-total-theatre style of theatre (used also by directors such as Rupert Goold and Thea Sharrock recently) is becoming more popular, it is still seen infrequently enough to make it surprising and innovative on each occasion. The popularity of the book draws in the crowds here, but it’s a production which asks questions and introduces new ideas, regardless of your views about autism, theatre, science or the Monty Hall Problem.

“Detroit” by Lisa D’Amour

at the Cottesloe Theatre, Wednesday 11th July 2012

Life in suburbia is something many of us have had experience of, and contains within it a conflict (most notably tha between the city and the country) which makes it perfect for theatrical presentation. In Detroit, Lisa D’Amour presents a searing satire on modern life in the suburbs and produces some laugh-your-head-off moments, but the overall narrative doesn’t seem to support the final ten minutes and much of the time it feels like Clybourne Park without the race issues.

Sharon and Kenny have just moved in opposite (at least I think opposite, the staging is a little confused) Ben and Mary, who are a little bemused by how “weird” their new neighbours are. They bond over some farcical mishaps, however, before Sharon and Kenny tempt Ben and Mary into “starting again”, like them. The play finishes with the two hippies wreaking destruction (*spoiler alert* they burn the house down) and scarpering, after which Frank arrives on the scene to explain the history of the community and the aspirations of the developers (“to start a conversation”, which clearly never happened).

It’s clear that these final few speeches of Frank’s are intended to support and tie up the rest of the play, but unfortunately D’Amour does not probe deeply enough or ask enough questions to make this obvious. The narrative is altogether too thin to support this argument and it becomes less of a critique of suburbia than an indictment of middle-class values and hypocrisy.

All this, however, is negligible compared to the pure wit of the piece. D’Amour paints a picture of these people to stunning accuracy and the dialogue remains a constant stream of jokes which hit the audience with wave after wave of uncontrollable laughter. Sharon talks about her bafflement at the “new internet” and Ben participates in an online community called “BritLand” where he is known as “Ian”. And for all their talking, these characters rarely have genuine conversations which amount to anything important. They are all so out-of-touch and self-absorbed that to do so is unthinkable.

Austin Pendleton (of Steppenwolf fame, who produced the premiere of the play in America) directs his five-strong cast brilliantly, teasing out nuanced and truthful performances. Will Adamsdale and Clare Dunne as Kenny and Sharon maintain an adolescent nonchalance and never seem menacing, even though their final act aligns them somewhat with symbolism of the devil. Stuart McQuarrie and Justine Mitchell initially seem their polar opposites, the former being a banker by trade and the latter supremely conscientious, but after time it’s clear they are merely Kenny and Sharon later on in life and with more money.

Kevin Depinet’s simple set allows the words to take centre stage, with the contrasting facades of the house looming over the action. Mark Henderson’s lighting shows the changing times of day without being overbearing and Anthony Capel and Matthew Scott’s music becomes integral to the plot in later scenes. Under Pendleton’s direction, Detroit is a comedy first and foremost and a social comment second, and though a deeper questioning of suburban life would have been welcome, D’Amour is shown here to be a master of comedy.

Pinterest board here: http://pinterest.com/danhutton/detroit-by-lisa-d-amour/

“Moon on a Rainbow Shawl” by Errol John

at the Cottesloe Theatre, Wednesday 18th April 2012

When Errol John won the Observer New Play prize in 1957 for Moon on a Rainbow Shawl, the British theatre scene was all but devoid of theatre representing working class life. The prize, set up by Kenneth Tynan following the trickle of exciting new plays following Look Back in Anger, would aim to bring a playwright to the fore who showed an audience the lives of ordinary people. In Michael Buffong’s production at the National Theatre, we see the beautiful subtlety of John’s obliquely feminist text, and are reminded of how important it is not to drop the banner of plays putting the lives of the majority on stage.

John’s play follows the lives of the inhabitants of a small yard in Trinidad over the course of forty-eight hour. The various men are suffering from bouts of worthlessness whilst the women hold the community together. Ephraim (Danny Sapani), wo seems to be modelled at least partly on Jimmy Porter, and who has ambitions to emigrate to Liverpool, feels stifled by his town and girlfriend Rosa, whilst it is partly his own melancholia which had led to this depression. At the heart of the community lies Sophia Adams (Martina Laird), who acts as mother, sister, daughter and lover variously to those around her as it becomes clear a local shop has been robbed. This description does her injustice, however, for she is by no means defined by those around her; she stands alone as an independent entity, and is given an extraordinarily strong voice.

In Buffong’s production, the beauty of John’s language is contained in Soutra Gilmour’s homely, secluded set (though the yard it represents does feel a little too ordered), is mixed with an authentic soundtrack (Pepe Francis) and rich, nostalgic lighting (Johanna Town). We are shown a picture of a community which, nuance aside, could be any on earth. Ordinary working people go about their daily business and understand that an affinity with their roots is essential, even though it can bring both joy and pain.

Forgetting a few questionable accents, we are treated to a fantastic cast who clearly have such admiration and empathy for their characters we cannot help but feel for every one of them. Sapani’s performance manages to steer clear from being a tormented, tortured soul and instead shows a truthful vision of a young man struggling to find his way in the world and understanding the unfortunate nature of his status in society. Jenny Jules’ Mavis, the woman from across the way with ambiguous sexual morality, offers some humour, and is offset by Jade Anouka’s calm, attentive Rosa. Jude Akuwudike as Charlie, Sophia’s husband and Esther’s (the energetic Tahirah Sharif) father, is a man stuck in a rut but who manages to contain his fury by caring passionately for his family. Laird’s Sophia is astonishing in its detail, and is filled with such extraordinary love for those dear to her that its unsurprising things turn out the way they do. She will no doubt be overlooked at awards season next year, but she should damn well be on those shortlists.

Whilst we are lucky in the twenty-first century to have a greater abundance of working-class plays in production, if Sundays Oliviers prove anything other than the fact Matilda is pretty good, it is that the mainstream is lacking the same sort of voices which epitomised the new wave in the 50s and 60s. Moon on a Rainbow Shawl shows just how universal these plays can be, and Buffong’s simple production takes pleasure in the ability of those living ordinary lives to take part in extraordinary narratives.

“Collaborators” by John Hodge

at the Cottesloe Theatre, Tuesday 20th March 2012

“What if…” pieces are always intriguing, offering an alternative view of history. It’s extraordinarily tempting to imagine Shakespeare and Dickens conversing in a pub, or Newton being educated by Einstein. We love to imagine these conversations, and consider how history would be different if these conversations were possible. In Collaborators, John Hodge asks “What if Josef Stalin helped Mikhail Bulgakov to write plays and in return Bulgakov helped him with affairs of state?”  The result is a witty, intelligent play which, even though it tries a little too hard to appeal to our hearts, asks some big questions.

After the success of The White Guard, the playwright and novelist Mikhail Bulgakov is asked (read: forced) to write a play for Stalin’s sixtieth birthday (he is a huge fan of the aforementioned play, having seen it fifteen times). Naturally, the writer wants to create an artistically sound piece of theatre, whilst his paymasters wish him to make something which praises Vozhd in all his glory. After a week struggling to create anything of worth, he is summoned by Uncle Joe himself, with whom he collaborates so both of them are able to get their work done. Along the way, Stalin realises the difficulties in writing and structuring a play, whilst Bulgakov becomes implicit in some of the atrocities of the Soviet regime.

It’s not hard to see what Hodge thinks of the art question here: it is impossible to create good art if one is given preconditions – i.e., no good art can be created under censorship. I think most of us can agree on that: the hilariously awful excerpts from “Young Stalin” prove this. The interesting debate, however, is about Bulgakov’s position. After being relinquished of the shame of writing an awful play, he begins to defend decisions about grain in the provinces which are costing lives. His initial hatred of his leader becomes far less clear-cut, and we are shown that those in power don’t have the luxury of ideology that many of us do: they have to balance arguments before coming to a conclusion. In this respect, Hodge is supremely successful, and the two-handed scenes between Stalin and Bulgakov are without doubt the most superior.

Where the play falls flat, slightly, is in Hodge’s portrayal of Bulgakov’s home life. The writer and his wife, Yelena, live with a whole host of other bohemians, who are somewhat stock and serve only the purpose of allowing an emotional outlet for Bulgakov. They seem superfluous, for this exact dilemma could just as easily be communicated to his wife alone. The core argument – that of the difficulties of ideology in art – is present in the one-on-one scenes, and we gain very little from the presence of other characters in the Bulgakov household.

Nicholas Hytner’s production is beautifully crafted, taking images and techniques from Communist propaganda. George Fenton & Paul Ardiiti’s music and sound are used in an almost cartoon-style way, and Jon Clark’s lighting acts as a frame around certain scenes. The tone of Hytner’s direction shifts from grimy socialist realism to stylised choreography, and is set beautifully on Bob Crowley’s red and black scenic design, looking like its been lifted straight off of a Soviet poster, complete with jagged lines and uneven floor.

A solid ensemble is led by three superb actors. Mark Addy’s Vladimir, the chief of police, lies on the borderline of ridiculous, but manages to retain a humanity which allows us to understand how difficult he finds his job. Simon Russell Beale’s portrays Stalin as an idiotic, frail but supremely passionate man who flips at an instant. There is something supremely menacing about his quietness, and the Somerset accent only adds to the confusion we feel towards him. Alex Jennings completes the trio as Bulgakov, rarely leaving the stage and providing the narrative drive and voicing the audience’s own internal debate.

It does feel at times like Collaborators is trying to tackle a few too many questions without ever fully exploring any of them, but what Hodge shows us is a world in which it is impossible to say what you feel openly. Although it is entirely fiction, the meetings between Stalin and Bulgakov feel extraordinarily real, and we are forced to ask ourselves whether the old maxim suggesting that artists would be better at politics than politicians is true after all.