I’ve never known a nicer Stalin than Simon Russell Beale. With his sparkling eyes, meandering West Country accent and eagerness to try his hand at creativity, he comes across as less of a dictator and more of an old pal to Alex Jennings’s Mikhail Bulgakov, the dissident playwright who has been forced to write a new piece to celebrate the Soviet leader’s 60th birthday.
He’s a friendly old chap, is Joseph Stalin. When Jennings’s confused, conflicted Bulgakov – a man with strict beliefs, living in a country being ripped asunder by threats and paranoia – is in need of help producing the work required by Mark Addy’s grinning menace of a secret police officer, up pops Stalin, eager to lend a helping hand.
Of course, if dictators were actually pantomime villains, they would never come to power, and the more Bulgakov works alongside Stalin, the more his opinions slowly change, even as his world implodes around him with friends and colleagues disappearing.
First time playwright John Hodge has penned films including Trainspotting and Shallow Grave, so it is not entirely surprising that he finds genuine laugh out loud moments in this dark tale of absolute control and the destruction of the soul. At times gags of Vaudevillian simplicity slip in, but work well in the landscape that floats between hard reality and fairytale nightmare.
The National’s Cottesloe Theatre has also been transformed to accommodate this Grimm vision, the audience secreted in pockets around Bob Crowley’s winding road stage that zigs and zags, rises and falls through the auditorium, a bed at one end, a cupboard – in which one of Bulgakov’s houseguests sleeps – at the other.
Director Nicholas Hytner embraces the aspects of vaudevillian comedy and nightmarish fantasy in his direction, drawing larger than life performances out at points – most notably in Nick Sampson’s doctor – and reining them in again to reveal the harsh realities.
But back to Beale’s jolly old Joe, a charismatic character given space to shine by Jennings. Chumminess will only ever stretch so far; the reality is like finding a gun-toting Grinch inside a Santa suit.