On what may have been the coldest Tuesday night yet of this winter season (quite atypical for Santa Barbara at a crisp 44 degrees), UCSB Arts and Lectures held National Theatre Live’s rebroadcast performance of the play “Collaborators” at the Lobero Theatre.
Made possible through the generous support of an anonymous donor, this screening of “Collaborators” forms one in the three part series of National Theatre Live dramas that will be held through Arts and Lectures during the Winter/Spring 2012 season at its new location in Lobero Theatre.
If National Theatre Live’s global efforts to showcase their productions should be called into question, “Collaborators” sets the standard for why this action on their behalf is particularly relevant at all.
The play is the most recent work of acclaimed screenwriter John Hodge, known for films such as “Trainspotting” (1996) and “Shallow Grave” (1994). Interestingly, “Collaborators” is Hodge’s first play, a tragicomedy based on real events which detail the fictionalized partnership between Soviet playwright Mikhail Bulgakov (played by Alex Jennings) and Joseph Stalin (played by Simon Russell Beale). As an artist struggling to stage his subtly anti-communist works throughout a 1930s Soviet Union, Bulgakov must choose: he may either acquiesce to write a propagandist play about Stalin — and in so doing defy all his principles — or he may refuse to yield and thus have all his works, including his most recent masterpiece, forever banned.
Filled with dark humor and rampantly unapologetic absurdity, “Collaborators” is an ingenious retelling of the age old struggle that is remaining true to oneself in the face of power and its irresistible seduction. Though initially Bulgakov adamantly detests all that Stalin and his Union represent, after being diagnosed with a terminal illness that renders his skin a strange tinge and leaves him physically weak, Bulgakov begins to doubt himself. However, it is not until Stalin himself enters the picture and tantalizingly offers Bulgakov the option of staging his precious masterpiece that he concedes to coercion. Despite his maxim that the author must first and foremost tell the truth, Bulgakov begins a partnership with Stalin that involves him creating an absurdly melodramatic play titled “Young Joseph” which shamelessly extols Stalin’s virtues and fools no one.
However, the further Bulgakov delves into the play’s creation, the more he finds that he himself begins to fall prey to the illusion of his own art. The play ends on a horrific note, the frenzy of Bulgakov’s loss culminating in the recurrent phrase which Stalin’s voice echoes as the stage goes dark, “It’s man versus monster, Mikhail, and the monster always wins.”
The play was introduced by a short video featuring directors and actors who gave insight into the creation of the work as a whole as well as to what individual actors desired to convey through their performance. As enriching as it was entertaining, National Theatre Live’s “Collaborators” gave an interesting glimpse into the pains within the twisted mind of the artist and the stakes that lay at the depths of the artwork itself. Much like the poignancy seen in Hodge’s “Trainspotting” which left audiences contemplating the ambivalence that is human life, “Collaborators” did not fail to deliver a spectacular performance concerning a subject which never seems to lose its novelty.
For those who have not yet experienced the spectacle and emotion that is live theater and wish to experience something akin to the reality, Nicholas Hytner’s “Travelling Light” and Oliver Goldsmith’s “She Stoops to Conquer” will be rebroadcast through Arts and Lectures on March 7 and April 19, respectively.