The Death of Stalin: From Russia with (very dark) laughs

By Jim Slotek

Rating: A-minus

There comes a time in the life of all great satirists when they must skewer reality head on, damn the consequences. With the blackly hilarious The Death Of Stalin, that time has come for Armando Iannucci.

Indeed, you can already read the blowback on social media. How dare he laugh at Stalin, the murderer of millions? I’m not sure whether these same people denounced Springtime for Hitler in Mel Brooks’ The Producers.

Iannucci (Veep) is a product of the TV world, exhibit A for that medium being creatively freer than the movies these days. His The Thick of It on BBC Four was like a profane version of Yes, Minister, set in the office of the Minister for Social Affairs. Peter Capaldi (yes, the recent Doctor Who) carried the foul-mouthed banner as the office major demo Malcolm, who could fit at least one imaginative F-bomb in every sentence.

 Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) and Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) conspire in The Death of Stalin

Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) and Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) conspire in The Death of Stalin

The Thick of It would have only ever been seen by Britons if it weren’t spun off into the screamingly-funny In The Loop, a movie clearly but not literally about the fumbling between Bush’s White House and Blair’s Downing Street over the invasion of Iraq. The movie, with James Gandolfini and Veep’s Anna Chlumsky, was nominated for a writing Oscar.

If In The Loop was a drive-by shooting at Iraq War politics, The Death of Stalin is a head on assault on history, a parade of comic blowhards all jockeying for position after the death of that other great tyrant of the 20th Century. You know, the one that wasn't Hitler?

Contributing to the theatre-of-the-absurdism of it all, no one is required to put on a phony Russian accent. Which means we get Steve Buscemi as Nikita Khrushchev sounding exactly like Steve Buscemi, and Jeffrey Tambor (pre-#MeToo blacklisting), as Stalin’s ineffectual nominal successor Georgy Malenkov who sounds exactly like Jeffrey Tambor. It’s a brilliant directorial choice, since it accentuates the idea that the craven self-interest on display is universal and relatable and not just a “Russian thing.”

The Death of Stalin does indeed live up to its title, but not before a 20-minute comic act-of-fear, in which Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) informs the technical director of a Mozart concerto that he wants a recording of that night’s performance ASAP. Except it’s already just happened and it wasn’t recorded. Which means the performers and audience are prevented from leaving and the entire thing must be repeated on pain of death.

While listening to the desperately-produced recording, Stalin suffers a stroke in a room no one dare enter unbidden (again, on pain of death). The next day, his soiled body is finally discovered, still-breathing, by a parade of his lieutenants, first among them the brutal Beria (Simon Russell Beale), the chief of the KGB predecessor NKVD, clearly portrayed here as a killer and rapist of women political prisoners.

Soon the others arrive to fret and procrastinate, including Khrushchev, Malenkov, Kaganovich (Dermot Crowley), Mikoyan (Paul Whitehouse), and Bulganin (Paul Chahidi). We later meet the terrified suspected traitor Molotov (Monty Python's Michael Palin), who’s been busy renouncing his wife to save himself.

The dictator needs medical help. One problem: Most of the best doctors in Moscow have been executed or imprisoned.

That’s the level of darkness in which The Death of Stalin revels. At a dinner, when Malenkov kills the good mood by referring jovially to a comrade who’d been executed, he says, dolefully, “I can’t remember who’s alive and who isn’t.”

When Comrade Stalin does breathe his last, new characters enter the scene, including the demanding daughter Svetlana Stalin (Andrea Riseborough) whom the others want to usher out of the country post-haste, and her brother, the drunken wastrel Vasily (Rupert Friend). Ditto.

As the designated clown in the piece (he’d been put in charge of the Russian hockey team, who were killed in a plane crash), Vasily gets some of the funniest lines. When he has to deliver his eulogy, he says, “I’m sober. I don't like this mood.”

Also introduced late is Jason Isaacs, as the self-important war hero Marshal Zhukov, whose character is the final piece tying together one of the 20th Century’s most infamous acts of homicidal betrayal that set the course of the Soviet Union for the next quarter century.

There may be a case to be made that the horrific reality that was Stalin’s Russia is unseemly as fodder for comedy. But if we are to understand history’s monsters, better to be faithful to the often banal motivations behind them (and to the amoral careerism that sees people abet them).

And what better way to kill a monster than to laugh at it?

The Death of Stalin. Directed and co-written by Armando Iannucci. Starring Steve Buscemi, Jeffrey Tambor and Simon Russell Beale. Opens at the Varsity theatre, Friday, March 16.