Filmed plays are hardly a new invention, and we remember them all too well – the dimensions of a theatre performance rendered flat by the camera’s glass eye, even the greatest performances traduced to be either remote or overblown; acting for the stage is not acting for the camera. It is the same principle as in physics; sound waves clear in air become muffled in water.
Or so we thought, because National Theatre Live has changed all that. Theatre performances have come to the screen in a way that is convincing, captivating, and yes – even intimate. The evidence was to be found recently when Sofia had its first taste of the project. In the staggered arrays of the seating at Cinema City in the Mall of Sofia, we watched theatre-in-the-round as performed in London, and it worked.
The National Theatre Live project’s concept is the broadcast by satellite of performances to 700 venues in 22 countries. In Sofia, the British Council can justifiably be proud of its participation meaning that a Bulgarian audience could watch John Hodge’s new play, Collaborators, as seen by a London audience. Usefully, the local screen had Bulgarian subtitles, with the translation at a superb level (unfortunately, a level not always matched in cinemas and on television, but that is by the by).
There is a serendipity in sitting with a Bulgarian audience – a few of whom seemed old enough to be likely to have their own memories of the Stalin era – watching a play that imagines the interaction, extrapolated from historical fact, when Soviet dissident writer Mikhail Bulgakov was commissioned to write a play about the youth of the dictator in celebration of Djugashvilli’s 60th birthday.
Hodge, whose resume includes having been Trainspotting’s screenwriter and who originally was a doctor by profession, was interviewed by Capital Light’s Teodora Mousseva, who asked the Scot whether someone who had not lived under communism could fully understand the regime. Hodge replied that what was portrayed in Collaborators was based on information from many others; Bulgakov he had read in translation, and he had read about his life.
That said, the dark humour through which the story is told – and though dark humour may be a British trademark, can there be any other way to approach the murderous tenuousness of life under Stalin? – suggests that there is no need for Hodge to be too modest about his grasp either of the Soviet regime, or Stalin or of Bulgakov himself.
In the same Capital Light interview, Hodge was asked a question referencing Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita, the ending in which Voland takes the Master with him at the request of Jesus, because the Master "does not deserve the light, he deserves rest".
"Do you think," Hodge was asked, "that this is what Bulgakov deserves – peace, and not light?"
Hodge’s reply: "No doubt he had earned rest after years of persecution and torture that the time, carrying out the will of Stalin, had imposed. As to the ‘light’, I think that Bulgakov himself was a source of artistic truth, a beacon in the darkness".
The discomfiting aspect, of course, of Hodge’s narrative, is in the moral compromises into which Bulgakov is successively pressed by Stalin in person. The two become collaborators, indeed, in an uneven role-reversal in which Stalin writes his own script while Bulgakov becomes complicit in decisions with inexorably fatal consequences. This is, however, not an evenly-balanced trade-off; to quote one of the motifs of Hodge’s play, the monster always wins.
That much represents just a few possible insights into this play and what it conveys. As with all such theatre, the themes stay with one, especially in today’s Bulgaria in which the theme of collaboration remains a running political issue (viz the Dossier Commission, disclosures about politicians, journalists, intellectuals and diplomats; and as to the current controversy about the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, well, we shall see, once those archives are scrutinised).
Thus too, a thought about what National Theatre Live achieves, the use of modern technology to create a shared theatre experience in a new dimension (and I for one am glad that broadcast-signal satellites are there for more than just football matches, but in so many ways, I am a terrible snob).
After the performance, and in preparing this piece, I visited the website to check on upcoming performances, in the hope that in Sofia there will be more of the same. Encore.