The Exeter University Theatre Company (EUTCO) are in fine form. Having treated us to the fantastic A Clockwork Orange in January, I went to see Collaborators with high expectations. Despite being on a lower budget and prepared in less time than their last offering, it blew me away, perhaps even surpassing A Clockwork Orange in the strength of the acting, the intelligence of the plot and the play’s overall emotional intensity.
Collaborators solidifies EUTCO’s reputation for delivering edgy, thought-provoking theatre, a rare feat for student theatre companies to consistently achieve successfully. Set in the late Thirties Soviet Union, the story follows a prominent writer Mikhail Bulgakov (James Murphy), who is forced to write a play glorifying the life of Stalin (Samuel Nicholls), just as he is on the verge of initiating the Great Purge: the program of mass murder, imprisonment and deportation to solidify Stalinist rule. Depicting such a sensitive and horrifying part of history is incredibly challenging. But EUTCO did it perfectly.
The slapstick satire of Collaborators was unexpected given the nature of the subject. But particularly in the first half, there was plenty of humour, and to devastating effect. There is the youthful naivety Sergei (Sebastian Fage), who enthusiastically believes in Bolshevism as if Communist orthodoxy was the word of God. Sergei’s character is there to mock those who followed orders without question. It is only when he is personally affected by the Purge that his faith in the regime is crushed. Sergei is contrasted with the older Vasilly (Luke Gyesi-Appiah), a former noble who was robbed of his privilege by the Revolution. Vasilly is lovably supportive of Mikhail, yet his denunciation of the urban proletariat and his belief in serfdom reminds us of the injustices of Tsarism.
The play’s portrayal of Stalin was satire at its very best. Stalin invites Mikhail to write the play with him. Unknown to everyone else, the two men swap roles. Stalin writes the play, because it soon becomes apparent Mikhail, a bourgeois liberal, cannot write a play representing Stalin positively. In return, Mikhail gets to govern the country. But in doing so, he realises the sheer brutality of the Soviet system. A simple request to ‘make further enquires’ results in a Communist leader and his wife being murdered merely because they are in a position of power. Stalin, an unsuitably jovial character, dismisses mass murder as an inevitable by-product of revolution. The absurd callousness of Stalin’s disinterest in the business of politics and the value of human life is a damning indictment of Communism, even if the portrayal of Stalin’s personality isn’t historically accurate.
Although Communist governance is condemned, Collaborators praises individuals who choose to do good. For me, the most interesting character was the secret policeman Vladimir (Eden Hastings.) He starts off a personification of Soviet totalitarianism, threatening Mikhail and his wife Yelena (Emily Lafoy). But he also appreciates theatre, praising Mikhail’s work and insisting he produces the play. Vladimir’s growing sympathy for Mikhail and disgust at Stalin’s purge eventually leads to his demise, but he wins over the hearts of the audience by standing up for himself.
The performance of James Murphy as Mikhail deserves a special mention. The role is emotionally exhausting. Mikhail is threatened, tortured, suffers from a seemingly incurable illness and recurring nightmares. He takes on a multitude of roles: a playwright trying to secure his career, a husband trying to reassure his wife and a mentor for the budding writer Grigory (Jed Spire). He is forced to transform himself from a ‘class traitor’ to an enthusiastic adherent to the Stalinist cult of personality. He begins to believe the lies he tells himself, reassuring Yelena the increasingly frequent disappearances of their friends are nothing to worry about. Murphy portrays the internal conflicts and contradictions of his character flawlessly, with the full gravitas and charisma the role requires.
Overall, EUTCO’s Collaborators is the complete historical drama. It includes lovable, interesting characters, witty and original humour in a fast-paced and thought-provoking plot. The play’s historical inaccuracies are not a hindrance to the effectiveness of the satire, but contribute to it: fictional absurdities are comparable to real ones. The Soviet Union is rightly shown to be an authoritarian, inhumane regime subject to the arbitrary whims of an erratic tyrant. The only shortcoming was that the ultra-fast scene transitions and the use of the play within a play occasionally left me feeling a bit lost. Nevertheless, the play is a sophisticated, comprehensive portrayal of Soviet history, and the nuances of people’s responses to it. I wish EUTCO the very best of luck for its future endeavours.
– Owen Bell
Images courtesy of EUTCO.