As Joseph Stalin, played by Simon Russell Beale, strides about the National Theatre stage, with his thyroid eyes and a soft Bristol accent, there is a guilty gurgle of appreciation from the audience. I am reminded of Peter Conrad's anxious response to Simon Sebag Montefiore's Stalin biographies: "Should the life of a black hearted ogre be quite so entertaining?"
John Hodge's new play Collaborators, about the relationship between Stalin and the playwright Mikhail Bulgakov (played by Alex Jennings) is not only piercingly funny, but also persuasive. Stalin is more than merely brutal, he has a kind of artistry and charm. He hardly raises his voice, because he does not need to. He knows there are other ways to destroy a man than by killing him. Mao Tse-tung achieved domination without complexity. The slogan of the Red Guard was: "We will be brutal."
Hitler and Stalin were both capable of a private tenderness or thoughtfulness, attentive to domestic detail while unmoved by suffering on a vast scale. Diana Mitford protested stoutly of her friend Hitler: "The man I knew could not have done that."
Hodge's Stalin distributes cars among his favourites and makes sure they understand the link between cooperation and comfort. He is bestial, but he is not a monster. He does not relish the mass slaughter of his people, seeing it more as a necessity of statecraft, an algorithm of power.
The layering of humanity is a dramatic device to make the gradual revelation of evil more terrible. Psychological depth is important for drama, but not necessarily for moral clarity. For an audience to laugh at a mass murderer, or even worse, laugh with him, looks like mitigation. This is a lasting artistic dilemma.
Bertolt Brecht's The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, written in 1941, employed the artistic ruse of presenting a dictator in disguised form. By recreating Hitler as a Chicago gangster, Brecht risked muffling evil with satire. Can you hate someone who makes you laugh?
In our century, comedy is the answer to everything. Is this beneficial for dictators? My children's knowledge of North Korea is strongly influenced by Team America's puppet of Kim Jong-il singing: "I'm So Ronery". Yet the lyrics, which explain that because nobody takes him seriously he has to take over the world, tell us a truth. He peers into a fish tank at human skeletons and sharks. We get the message.
But does the demystification of a man who claims to control his country's weather by his moods loosen his hold on his people? Alas, I cannot recall a tyrant deposed by satire. It looks as if only old age will do for the Kim Jong IIs and Mugabes. It was a popular uprising and Nato planes that brought down Gaddafi, not ridicule.
Indeed, comedy may be part of menace rather than an antidote to it. Affection in a tyrant is obscene. If Bulgakov was embarrassed by Stalin's boast that he had seen The White Guard 15 times, imagine what it was like for Condoleezza Rice knowing that Gaddafi kept a scrap book about his "black flower in the White House".
I don't accept the argument that comedy is a better weapon than sanctions or military might. The psychopath cannot be laughed into submission. Countries under tyranny do not share our levity.
Sarah Sands is deputy editor of the London Evening StandardReuse content