Cate Nunn is directing John Hodge’s Collaborators for Ronin Theatre. She tells us more about the show.
There are things you feel you shouldn’t laugh about. The Great Terror – Stalin’s purge of perceived enemy elements in the USSR, which killed thousands of people – is surely one of them. But sometimes, a writer comes along who sees that the surreal and arbitrary chaos at the heart of Stalin’s Russia can be played out as a black comedy – producing something that first makes you laugh, and then makes you think. Armando Iannucci did that with The Death of Stalin, and John Hodge has done it with Collaborators – which I’m excited to be directing for Ronin Theatre this November.
Collaborators starts with a true story (that Stalin really was a fan of author Mikhail Bulgakov, and that Bulgakov really did write an uncharacteristically pro-Stalin play late in his career), and spins it out into an increasingly chaotic comic fable about the price of freedom, and blurring the lines between survival and collaboration.
In our story, Bulgakov is commissioned to write a play about Stalin for Stalin’s birthday present but, hamstrung by his opposition to the regime, he has writer’s block. The secret police are breathing down his neck and things are looking precarious for the writer, until Stalin suggests a secret deal: he’ll write the play, the only downside is, in return Bulgakov will have to run the Soviet Union. And so Bulgakov ends up spending his nights in a secret office under the Kremlin, running the USSR and forming a surprising bond with the dictator he hated. Can Bulgakov survive – and what will the cost be if he does?
At the end of the 1930s, the USSR descended into a chaotic whirlwind of denunciations, executions and state terror. A nationwide state of fear and paranoia caused Stalin’s speeches to be given ten-minute standing ovations, because no one dared be the first one to stop applauding. Free speech, even free thought, in these conditions was terrifyingly dangerous. Collaborators takes one man’s journey into the early days of this storm, and uses it to ask all of us what we would do in such a situation. Against the machinery of the state, under the thumb of one unpredictable man, would we have the courage of our convictions – or would we bend to stay alive?
The show is fast-paced, witty, hilarious and moving by turns – and somehow using humour to examine this dark episode from history ends up not being disrespectful at all, but instead poignant and thought-provoking.
Collaborators is here, 30 October – 3 November.