In the National Theatre’s current production of John Hodge’s Collaborators (which transfers from the Cottesloe to the Olivier from April 30, to launch this year’s Travelex £12 tickets season), Russian dissident writer Mikhail Bulgakov is propelled into a nightmarish imagined encounter with his greatest fan but also biggest personal threat Joseph Stalin, who really did commission him to write a play to celebrate his birthday.
But it was living under this repressive regime that also ensured Bulgakov’s artistic suppression and meant, for instance, that The Master and Margarita, his richly allegorical novel on the oppression of Russian life, was unpublished until 27 years after his death.
Now, Complicite – the Simon McBurney-led international theatre company that has spent the last 25 years stretching the parameters of what is theatrically possible – is attempting what McBurney has himself called impossible and defeated numerous others, from film-makers like Fellini and Polanski to composers like Andrew Lloyd Webber, namely giving it a new life in a different medium.
But if anyone can pull it off, Complicite can and does. This mind and genre-expanding theatricalisation is at once complex, demanding and disturbing. It hurtles along in McBurney’s utterly fluid, impressionistic staging between past, present and future, and between philosophical enquiry and flights of imaginative, hallucinatory fancy as the devil descends on Moscow to prove the existence of God to religious sceptics: “If God doesn’t exist, who controls man’s destiny?”
Expertly controlling the show’s own destiny, of course, is the God-like figure of McBurney himself, who lends it his own combination of highly stylised audacity and startling technical confidence, as he integrates puppetry and live action film (with echoes of the work of Katie Mitchell here) to tell this layered, fractured story. The result is visually stunning and acted with the utmost commitment.