REVIEW: The Master and Margarita
Anna Peel and Dani Cugini are mesmerised by this dark, fantastical adaptation of Bulgakov’s novel.
“The Devil is going on?” exclaims Trepan, as his carefully-maintained Soviet life crumbles around him.
Yes, Trepan, he is. Bulgakov’s surreal, electric masterpiece of love, art and political satire is translated wonderfully to the ADC stage, into a sprawling, ambitious performance with a dark energy that crackles through every element – from the Centurion’s eyeless stare to the dull, disconcerting orange hospital light, The Master and Margarita manages to be vibrantly fantastical and starkly thoughtful at turns, wild and disturbing with a buzzing black comedy.
If you’ve read the book (and if you haven’t, consider it – it’s a great read once you get used to the giant talking cat) don’t expect the production to be identical to the original – it is faithful to the text but plays with its chronology, opening with Sophia Flohr’s strained, quietly driven Pontius Pilate hearing out Yeshua Ha’Nozri (known to his modern friends as Jesus Christ). The scene is severe; smoke is rolling out into the audience, a nice touch of theatricality even if it does make you want to cough if you’re near the front – until the scene stops and Yeshua starts suggesting new lines that he’s added to the script. It is from this point that things start to get…surreal.
‘Yeshua’ is in fact played by the director of the play, the titular Master (and Jack Needham truly is a master of stage presence, though at times his delivery was a little fast) and after a rehearsal he meets Eleanor Mack’s glorious, imperious Margarita, ingeniously dressed in black velvet with a bunch of yellow flowers, and the magnetism is instant. Their love affair is passionate and unromantic, dwarfed by the shadow of the oppressive society that threatens to swallow both them and the art that binds them. Just as Mack commands attention through her wildness of love and grief, Joe Pitts commands it as lovely, trembling Ivan, the young proletariat author standing in the Master’s footsteps. A feature of the cast as a whole is that they are often so physically expressive that they have little need to speak.
And then, of course, there’s the Devil. Ben Walsh is brilliantly cast and a delight to behold as the smiling, insect-like Dr. Woland (a sideways nod to Faust), as well as his careening, sly sidekick Fagott (Declan Amphlett), the contemptuous and darkly regal Azazello (Hannah Sands) and the aforementioned giant talking cat, Behemoth, who ripples and writhes at his side (Katurah Moreish). Most of the play’s comic moments come from the Devil and his entourage, as well as some of the most spellbinding, as he looks out into the world – “They would flay the surface of the earth to fulfill a fantasy of bare light.” The Devil is at the centre of it all, and you will swear that Walsh doesn’t blink for once during the entire show.
The production is impressive, despite some technical issues – using both the front and back of the stage is a clever doubling device but means that it is sometimes difficult to hear, the screen would sometimes catch on the furniture, and a mishap with a gunshot sound effect blemished a fantastic subtlety of sound effects throughout the performance – and the joy of the show is in the details. The nuances of makeup, sound and light; the flashes of red in Pontius Pilate’s robe and Woland’s high-backed chair; the suitably mechanical choreography at the Walpurgisnacht ball and the Soviet writers’ union – artistically, the work put into The Master and Margarita is immense. Do not go to this show if you’re tired; you will be missing out.
All in all, The Master and Margarita manages to pull the complex essence of Bulgakov’s novel onto the stage, into a production well worth seeing.
And if at any point you get confused, or scared, or can’t remember where that head came from, just remember Dr Woland’s words: “Don’t lose your head – and fear nothing.”