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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Cottesloe Theatre  Winter 2011-2012; Olivier Spring 2012

Most plays about historical figures are imaginative peeps behind closed doors, guesses at personalities and motives that attempt to explain how history happened. John Hodge's new drama goes beyond guesswork to total fantasy, offering an explanation that is clearly wrong but paradoxically offers a persuasive insight into the personalities if not the facts. 

Fact: in 1938 Russian playwright Mikhail Bulgakov wrote a fawning (and rather poor) play about the early life of Joseph Stalin. Reasonable speculation by Hodge: he was blackmailed into it with the threat that his other plays would be banned. Total fantasy: Stalin himself wrote the play during secret meetings with Bulgakov, getting the playwright to handle some minor bureaucratic matters while he was waiting. 

But in Hodge's imagination, those matters were not minor, and Bulgakov soon found himself in up to his neck in some of Stalin's most outrageous policies, including the mass purges and executions of the next few years. 

Nobody, least of all John Hodge, believes that Bulgakov signed all those orders any more than that Stalin wrote that play. But the fantasy serves as a telling metaphor of Stalin's skewed brilliance and the Russian intelligentsia's impotence.

Alex Jennings' Bulgakov is an instinctively cheery man, despite nightly nightmares of Stalin chasing him around the kitchen table. His latest play is a success, he loves his wife, he has good friends, and he is inclined to blind himself to minor inconveniences like sharing a tiny flat with three others or always fearing the ominous knock at the door. 

That capacity for denial serves him well when Stalin gets him to vet and criticise some industrial output reports, since he can't imagine that his mild criticisms will lead to mass arrests, and his inclination to adjust and carry on means that without realising it he is soon parroting party-line justifications for Stalin's policies. 

None of this really has anything to do with the historical Bulgakov, but if you take him as a symbol, the mystery of why Russians continued to believe and follow is partly explained. 

Similarly, Simon Russell Beale's Stalin is a brilliant comic creation with a frighteningly dark underside. First seen in a nightmare as the slapstick villain in a farcical silent film chase scene, Russell Beale's Stalin always has a touch of the clown about him, in his hearty graciousness toward the confused Bulgakov and his enthusiasm as a fledgeling playwright. 

But he is also cold-blooded, very possibly insane, and clearly the cleverest and wiliest person around, and everything he says and does must have at least one hidden meaning and purpose. So we twig very quickly that we're watching a cat-and-mouse game between Stalin and Bulgakov, even if we're not sure until the very end what its purpose is. 

And since this is a fantasy, that purpose is less important than the insight that Stalin was not the mindless thug history sometimes calls him, but that even more frightening thing, a mad genius. 

Nicholas Hytner directs with a sure hand that keeps the fantasy afloat even as things get very serious, and guides us to understand the story on its own terms and as metaphor. There are strong performances by Mark Addy as a secret policeman who discovers he has less capacity for denial than his job might require, Jacqueline Defferary as Bulgakov's worrying wife, and the whole cast. 

Bob Crowley's design puts the play in diagonal transverse across the Cottelsoe's floor, with a series of ramps and inclines that constantly threaten the actors' footing and equilibrium, and should have been blocked by the health and safety authorities.

Gerald Berkowitz

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