A vintage Underwood typewriter with Cyrillic keyboard weighs as much as a crate of vodka and makes a lethal weapon if one can raise it to shoulder height. We had one in the Reuters office in Moscow in the 1970s and though items of office equipment were sometimes thrown around in sheer frustration, nobody ever tried it with the 'Oondervood'.
So it's all to the credit of Simon Russell Beale that he manages to raise the beast above his head and comes within a whisker of braining Alex Jennings with it in the opening nightmare sequence of John Hodge's very funny new play at the National Theatre's Cottesloe. Russell Beale plays Joe Stalin to Jennings' Mikhail Bulgakov; these two Olivier award-winning actors are a devastating double act, as they proved in Nicholas Hytner's production of The Alchemist a few years ago. This time Hytner has taken a punt on a first-time playwright (how much green envy is that going to provoke among other writers?) as a vehicle for his two star actors, and it's a gamble that pays off. Hodge is a top-class screenwriter who wrote Trainspotting and Shallow Grave for Danny Boyle. He's not a Russian expert, though as he showed in last night's pre-show discussion with Michael Jacobs, and in his programme note, he has an excellent political grasp of what Stalin's Soviet Union was like.
Paradoxically, Hodge's detachment from Russian culture works to his advantage in helping him take this literary fantasy about a writer collaborating with a tyrant further away from realism and into the world of the absurd, where it belongs. The basis for the story is grounded in fact, however. Reading a footnote in Simon Sebag Montefiore's book on the young Stalin, he discovered that Bulgakov once wrote a hack play about the dictator's youth which was never performed. This came as a surprise to me, though I was aware that Stalin admired Bulgakov's play The White Guard (also known as Days of the Turbins) so much that he saw it fifteen times, and once telephoned the writer himself to promise him a post at the Moscow Art Theatre. Hodge uses these facts to imagine Bulgakov and Stalin meeting face to face and exchanging roles; Stalin takes over the hack play about his early life with relish, passing his Kremlin dossiers to the writer to deal with. Threatened with the alternative of a bullet in the back of the neck, Bulgakov gradually gets sucked in; hot water appears in his shabby communal apartment, a driver and a car are put at his disposal, he and his wife are able to host a party for their new NKVD friends and he has access to the Kremlin clinic, where the doctors tell him his kidney problems have gone away. Of course, it all ends disastrously as the purges gather pace and he helps Stalin set targets and quotas for the extermination of his political enemies, real or imagined. There's a chilling pessimism to the satire which suggests it's wrong to believe that manuscripts don't burn. They do, quite easily.
Stalin emerges as a genial fellow with a West Country burr, a sense of humour and intellectual pretensions; after all, this is a man who prided himself on his artistic judgments and famously wrote in Pravda about Marxism and linguistics. At one point he apologises to Bulgakov for coming late to a meeting: 'I have a lot of other things to do, you know'. Russell Beale catches Stalin's slight limp, his fake modesty and hypocrisy without making him a complete figure of fun. He jokes about the Kremlin plumbing as 'not for the fainthearted'. There are echoes of Woody Allen and Mel Brooks in this dramatic recreation of a monster who at first affects horrified disbelief about the confessions of his old friends Kamenev and Zinoviev. Jennings is equally good as Bulgakov, who thinks he can play cat and mouse with his persecutor but is fatally deluded. The demands of the plot require that Bulgakov is naive to the point of foolishness about his Faustian bargain with Stalin, but his motivation is not pride or ambition, just fear. He knows that if he slips up, the consequences will be felt not just by him but by his defenceless wife.
Mark Addy is equally good as a secret policeman who doubles as the director of the hagiographical play about Stalin, and the rest of the cast, including that wonderful veteran Patrick Godfrey, help build up the picture of Bulgakov's domestic life, sharing a cramped communal apartment in 1930s Moscow. There are echoes here of Nikolai Erdman's The Suicide and The Mandate, written in the 1920s. As a screenwriter, Hodge has the gift of economy with words and the ability to write short scenes. There's one clunky moment when Addy reads out a transcript of Bulgakov's 1930 phone call with Stalin (a scene that on film would have been shot as a simple flashback). The expository scenes go on a bit too long, but the second act, much darker than the first, is well structured and tense. There are some excellent snapshot scenes of rehearsals from the play about the young Stalin, well played by Perri Snowdon and MIchael Jenn. This is a very British play and I'm not sure how well it would go down with a Russian audience. Addy, for example, seems to have the approach of an old-fashioned British copper from Z-cars or Heartbeat rather than the ruthlessness of the Lubyanka, but it really doesn't matter. He delivers some one-liners that could have been penned by Tom Stoppard or Alan Bennett: 'You've been in show business too long; here in the secret police, a man's word is his bond.'
Bob Crowley's set has a 1920s constructivist feel, with every section of the zig-zag stage set at a different angle to the horizontal. The actors are literally off balance from beginning to end. As the Cottesloe has been adapted to set the play in the round, there are no walls and only one set of doors, further freeing the play from the conventions of realism. At its best, the writing suggests the darkly surreal world of Bulgakov's Master and Margarita, and my only regret about this play is that Hodge did not manage to weave some of its elements into his script.