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A CurtainUp London Review
In a dreamlike scenario, we see Bulgakov (Alex Jennings) awakened in the middle of the night by a furious banging on the door, first a knocking and then getting faster and more furious like a fast beating heart. This is a nightmare and through the smoke in the archway comes the figure of Stalin (Simon Russell Beale) and then Bulgakov wakes up.
We meet the inhabitants of Bulkahov’s apartment, his wife Yelena (Jacqueline Defferary), Vassily the ex-aristocrat (Patrick Godfrey), Praskovya the teacher (Maggie Service) and Sergei (Pierce Reid), a young writer and the occupant of the kitchen cupboard. They have no coffee, no hot water for a bath, no heating. This is deprivation Stalin style. The medical care for Bulgakov is from a casual doctor in a dirty once white coat (Nick Sampson) whose competence we doubt.
We see snatches from Bulgakov’s play about Moliere, also a playwright writing under an oppressive regime which recreates Moliere’s real life death onstage. Then there is another visit in the night but this time it isn’t a dream. Two leather coated members of Stalin’s secret police the NKVD Vladimir (Mark Addy) and Stephen (Marcus Cunningham) want the playwright to compose a play about Stalin as a birthday surprise. The deal is that his play about Moliere would be given another production. Then commence the meetings between Stalin and Bulgakov which end up with a job swap. While Stalin writes the play glamorising his early life, Bulgakov reads the government papers and makes decisions for Stalin about factory outputs in the steel industry and how to solve the shortage of grain, feed the peasants or feed the industrial workers, eat the seed corn or not.
Simon Russell Beale gives an affectionate, quizzical and jokey portrait of Joseph Stalin while Alex Jenning’s character ends up defending some of the government decisions that he has made to his non conformist friends. In the second act Bulgakov and the fellow residents of his apartment are given the rewards of power, a car, heating, hot water, luxury foods, designer clothes, red roses and a posh doctor. But then it all starts to go very wrong as the writer realises the nature of the man he has been colluding with and the writer has his own words twisted by Stalin resulting a quota to be executed.
The chilling message of the Stalinist oppression and the effect on artists is countered by the surreal, dreamlike production with every scene played on Bob Crowley’s interesting asymmetric, sloping traverse set, stepped for the bed at one end, the kitchen at the other and a space in the centre for the playwright to meet Stalin and for him to type away on the mechanical typewriter. We are treated to scenes from the supposed biographical propaganda play. The promise of the first half isn’t realised in the second, but it is wonderful to see the magnificent Simon Russell Beale enjoying his role and bouncing off his old acting comrade Alex Jennings.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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