New Era Players: Collaborators, at New Era Theatre, Wash Common, from Wednesday, November 30, to Saturday, December 3, and Tuesday, December 6, to Saturday, December 10
New Era's splendid production of John Hodge's compelling play Collaborators explores the relationship between banned author Mikhail Bulgakov and Joseph Stalin. It is set in Moscow in 1938 and the play begins with a surrealist nightmare where Bulgakov is chased around his small flat by Stalin and is attacked with a typewriter.
Sharing this shabby apartment, where there is no heating or hot water, is Bulgakov's devoted, fretful wife, Yelena (Georgie Gale), former aristocrat Vassily (Peter Hendrickx) and history teacher Praskovya (Sally Scrivener). Living in the cupboard is the young, enthusiastic party member Sergei (Alexander Greenwood-Forkin).
There is an uneasy and surprising alliance between Bulgakov and Stalin, as he despised all that his tyrannical regime stood for. But Bulgakov faces a dilemma as his latest play Molière, about the French playwright, has been banned. He is told in no uncertain terms by the NKVD secret policeman Vladimir, menacingly played by David Tute, that if he writes a heroic play about Stalin's younger life for his 60th birthday within a month, then the ban will be lifted.
Neil Taylor brings a superb gravitas to the role of the ailing Bulgakov, who is suffering from kidney disease and facing up to his agonising decision to give up his principles and write the play, in an almost Faustian pact. As the Soviet leader, Keith Keer gives an impressive and powerfully manipulative performance. He visits Bulgakov in a secret cellar below the Kremlin and when he experiences 'writers block', Stalin offers to write the play – "leave the slave labour to me" – in exchange for Bulgakov's assistance in helping with bureaucratic Politburo affairs of state, in running the country, with catastrophic results. There is a chilling relationship between them as they share vodka at their regular meetings and Bulgakov's world becomes more bearable with such luxuries as food, coffee and hot water for his household.
Stan Dooley gives a poignant portrayal as the young, idealistic poet and novelist Grigory, who admires Bulgakov, but has a tragic ending. There are strong supporting performances from Anouk van Dijk as Anna, Thomas Buckingham as the silent policeman Stephan, David Zeke as the lecherous Doctor, Daphne George as Eva and Robert Beagle and Cheryl Nichol as the actors who perform Young Stalin in rehearsal. However, this satirical, dark fantasy play does not end as expected, as Bulgakov's feverish dreams confuse reality with hallucinations, but remains a metaphor for life during the soviet communist era.
John Cordery's atmospheric lighting effectively creates the different locations and Nigel Winter directs this intriguing play with confidence and integrity.
© 2016 Newbury Weekly News
Mikhail Bulgakov - Neil Taylor
Yelena - Georgie Gale
Joseph Stalin - Keith Keer
Vassily - Peter Hendrickx
Praskovya - Sally Scrivener
Sergei - Alexander Greenwood-Forkin
Grigory - Stan Dooley
Anna - Anouk van Dijk
Vladimir - David Tute
Stepan - Tom Buckingham
Doctor - David Zeke
Actor 1 - Robert Beagley
Actor 2 - Cheryl Nichol
Eva - Daphne George
Other parts played by members of the company.