Adapted and directed by Eamon Flack, from the book by Mikhail Bulgakov. Belvoir St Theatre. Nov 11 to Dec 10, 2023
Reviewed : 15 November, 2023*
Twould be wonderful if Mikhail Bulgakov could be spirited into the Belvoir St Theatre to the see what Eamon Flack, his cast, and a host of creatives have made of his book The Master and Margarita. He’d see all his characters – the Devil, his assistant, a naked witch, a huge black, talking cat with a liking for vodka, an assassin, a poet, a writer, Christ and Pontius Pilate – corralled together in a riotous romp that’s mad and magical – and as mischievous as Bulgakov meant it to be!
Written in secret during the mid 1900s, the book was Bulgakov’s reaction to Stalinist Russia, and was not published until twenty-six years after his death. Eamon Flack introduced the book to some actors at Belvoir during the 2020 lockdown – and they saw the possibilities of putting Bulgakov’s imaginative genius on to the stage. Afterall, Bulgakov was foremost a playwright, though his work was banned by Stalin for some time.
The result is a piece of theatre that is brave, chaotic, funny, mesmerising … and uplifting! There is so much happening! Entrances, exits. Surprising entrances, even more surprising exits! Lighting effects, costume effects, sound effects, special effects! A reflective marbled revolve that fills the stage. A falling garden. A giant neon letter W.
Even Bulgakov could not have imagined this wild, wicked interpretation of the book that he wrote, burned because of its contentious content, rewrote from memory, and was secreted way from the world until 1966. Many have considered productions of The Master and Margarita, but it took a pandemic, some imaginative actors and an open-minded theatre company to say, “we can do this!”. And they have!
Ten actors and a musician (Gary Daley) tell the tall tale, moving from Russia to ancient Jerusalem; from a park in Moscow to the hill of Calvary. They move fast at times, stand stock still at others. They question, accuse, strike out, shout, whisper and scoot around the revolve as if it were a skate park, as they tell the story of Satan raising havoc in a city that doesn’t believe in God or the Devil; and Margarita, who would go to hell for her lover, The Master, who is writing a story about Christ and Pontius Pilate.
As Bulgakov’s book was their inspiration, so it becomes their primary prop, held devotedly by Matilda Ridgway, their resolute Narrator. Ridgway uses the power of pause both to manage the action and to underline her comic timing. She is a constant in the production, controlling, directing chastising, comforting.
Paula Arundell is Wolan, the Devil, sweeping into the action, her powerful voice commanding attention and obedience, her eyes shining, her body tense and ware. Beside her is Josh Price as Behemoth, the big, black talking cat who acts before he thinks; and Gareth Davies as Azzazelo, the assassin, who hits, kicks, trips on the revolve, stumbles over words – and does it all with perfect comic timing and a ridiculous grin!
Amber McMahon is Korovyev, Wolan’s assistant/translator, a jester-type character. Sporting stripes and a curly moustache, McMahon weaves lithely in and around the action, strong and watchful and a bit wicked.
Marco Chiappi is a Pontius Pilate, contemplating the fate of Yeshua of Nazareth. Tom Conroy is a “not very good” poet who ends up in a psychiatric asylum along with The Master (Mark Leonard Winter) who bemoans his inability to write and the loss of his lover Margarita, who only went away for a day and came back to find him gone! Anna Samson is Margarita, a loyal lover, true and faithful, prepared to bare all and in the search for her Master.
Jana Zvedeniuk plays Yelena, Bulgakov’s second wife, who has guarded his book in secret and lies on the stage reading the final words of the book as the production closes around her.
And those are just the characters they play. They also play people in the park and party goers. They move props, pick up flowers, run around the revolve and dance wild and naked! They work joyfully together bringing this complicated, eccentric story to life.
Bulgakov wrote The Master and Margarita in Soviet Moscow over 70 years ago. It was held safe by his wife Yelena until times were much brighter. Once published, it became a best seller, its ‘way out’ characters denouncing the oppressed society of a harsh dictator. Belvoir brings it to the stage in a production that is theatrical, dramatic, flamboyant – all the things that theatre can be but isn’t very often!
To that end: be forewarned that the production includes full nudity, references to suicide, strong language and adult themes.