Venue: New Theatre (Newtown NSW), Jun 4 – Jul 6, 2019
Playwright: John Hodge
Director: Moira Blumenthal
Cast: Michael Arvithis, Audrey Blyde, Ben Brighton, Elsa J Cherlin, Richard Cotter, Peter Farmer, Dave Kirkham, Madeline MacRae, Dominique Purdue, Joshua Shediak, Andrew Simpson, John van Putten, Annette van Roden, David Woodland
Images by Bob Seary
Near the end of his career, Mikhail Bulgakov wrote a play about Joseph Stalin. In John Hodge’s Collaborators, we examine that relationship between artist and dictator, speculating on the integrity that becomes compromised, when creativity is exposed to politics. From having his work banned, to completing Stalin’s flattering portrait, we observe the ease with which institutional power can infringe upon expression, and how the dissemination of information is always a precarious enterprise when governments and businesses are involved. Hodge’s play is imaginative, and quite dynamic, but the journey that it plots for Bulgakov is predictable; having sold his soul to the devil early in the process, it is a challenge for the narrative to go anywhere surprising.
It is however, a splendidly designed production, with Colleen Cook’s set and Martin Kinnane’s lights offering sumptuous imagery, and Patrick Howard’s luscious sound design adding to the surreal aesthetic being manufactured. The audience is immersed in a stylistic landscape inspired by Bulgakov and by Stalin’s Russia, one that feels accurate in its invocation of a time and space that feels historic, but not too long gone. Director Moira Blumenthal’s calibration of atmosphere for each scene is precise and passionate, but although tone is consistently well rendered for this staging of Collaborators, some of its dramaturgy proves insufficiently thorough, and what should clearly be a poignant experience, leaves us somewhat underwhelmed.
Leading man Andy Simpson brings a rich authenticity to Bulgakov. We believe this rendition of the struggling dramatist, even if his essence can eventually prove monotonous. Although not entirely convincing as a heavyset autocrat, Stalin is depicted by Richard Cotter, whose playful exuberance is an entertaining asset for the production. David Woodland impresses as Vladimir, secret police agent turned theatre director, bringing flamboyance as well as nuance to the show, keeping us riveted to his character, to deliver effective expositions when the story turns convoluted.
We need our art to be pure, but it is unrealistic to expect incorruptibility of our artists. More than anyone, they have to be open to the world, free to absorb anything that appeals to their senses. It is the nature of their vocation to be exposed to influences, but at the same, we need them to know the difference between right and wrong. In Collaborators, we see Bulgakov lose his way, as the propaganda machine gradually takes him over, reminding us that no artist is spared of human fallibility. People will fail, and failure must be acknowledged, so that we can recognise success when it appears.