From Beaumont and Fletcher to Kaufman and Hart, there have been many cases of playwrights working in tandem. But Stalin and Bulgakov? Surely some mistake. The General Secretary of the Communist Party and the era's greatest (if often slyly so) dissident dramatist sound unlikely co-authors. That, however, is the scenario we are asked to envisage in the savagely funny, darkly fantastical play that screenwriter John Hodge has concocted for his stage debut.
Premiered in Nicholas Hytner's nimble-witted, drolly macabre production, which is performed on a zig-zagging Constructivist set by Bob Crowley, the piece extrapolates from the known facts. We are in Moscow, 1938. Bulgakov (an elegantly pained and fastidious Alex Jennings) is struggling to cope with a possibly fatal kidney disease and the repeated banning of his work. Then, though, he is offered the most poisoned of all chalices in the shape of an invitation to write a play in celebration of Stalin's 60th birthday. The dangled reward is the green-light for his much-postponed Molière, another piece about a writer victimised by a tyrant. But how is Bulgakov to work this situation to his advantage, while maintaining his integrity?
The clever, though risky, twist is that we are presented not with an objective view of how the Faustian pact works out but an alternative nightmare reality conjured up by the dramatist's trouble conscience. In this outrageously funny and pointed reductio ad absurdum of the relationship between artist and despot, Bulgakov and his oppressor don't just collaborate, they exchange functions during their imaginary clandestine trysts. More stage-struck fan than satanic genius at the outset, Simon Russell Beale's superb Stalin limps about like an intimidatingly affable warthog with a faintly Ambridge burr. "Isn't it fun to be creative?" he declares as he takes over at the typewriter, bashing out a barkingly hagiographic bioplay, while relievedly offloading his own paperwork and affairs of state on to the poor dramatist.
It's the job swap from hell, with Bulgakov gradually sucked into a topsy-turvy world where he's not merely second-guessing Stalin but prompting him as an aghast party to the unleashing of the Terror. You could argue that there's a danger that newcomers to Bulgakov will run away with the false idea that his reputation is indeed tainted with compromise. But the central conceit has a satiric power and economy that this great dramatist would surely have admired. And, in bringing out all the horror and black hilarity of the pair's mutual fascination, Jennings as a mountingly self-disgusted Bulgakov and Russell Beale as a Stalin whose diabolical ruthlessness is late-revealed are actorly collaborators of the first order.
In rep to 21 January (020 7452 3000)