Don’t contradict strange gentlemen. Take special care around the George Street light rail. Watch out for flying pigs. Treat any black cat you might meet with caution, especially ones that speak to you. Woland and his satanic crew have taken up residence at Belvoir.
One of the many ironies connected to the Russian playwright and novelist Mikhail Bulgakov (1891–1940) is that though he wrote several eminently performable plays, one of which, The Days of the Turbins, was mangled by the Sydney Theatre Company in 2011, it is his novel The Master and Margarita which is constantly produced. There have been several films, a couple of television series, ballets, and operas based on the novel. Perhaps surprisingly, there have also been many stage adaptations. Surprising because, as well as the aforementioned pig and that garrulous cat, the novel contains, along with many other black magic tricks, a satanic ball attended by a vast number of villains and a scene in which the female audience members of a magic show have a nasty surprise as they exit the theatre. Oh, and there’s also a cast of thousands who turn out to watch an execution.
Bulgakov’s novel, on which he laboured for twelve years until his death, during the worst of Stalin’s Terror, tells of the arrival in Moscow of the Devil, who, under the name Woland, along with his crew – Azzazelo, Korovyev, and the cat, Behemoth – creates havoc while searching for a woman who will fulfil a certain function for him. The pandemonium they create allowed Bulgakov to satirise the greed, corruption, and hypocrisy of Stalinist Russia with especial focus on the literary scene of which he saw himself as an outsider; not surprisingly since only one of his plays, The Days of the Turbins, was produced in his lifetime and since The Master and Margarita was not published until 1967, long after his death.
A woman, Margarita, is found, but her price is the release of her lover, the Master, from the asylum to which he has been confined. A writer, he has burned his magnum opus, a depiction of the Crucifixion seen from the point of view of Pontius Pilot, fearful of the reactions of the authorities. Bulgakov’s novel switches between Moscow and Jerusalem.
For Margarita and her lover, the one unforgivable sin is cowardice, a vice of which no one could accuse director and adaptor Eamon Flack. To take the crazy/brave decision to mount this spectacular work, it is necessary to dismantle it and work out on which aspects one wishes to concentrate. Accordingly, Flack sensibly downplays the contemporary aspects of Stalinist society that Bulgakov satirises: the desperate struggle for non-communal housing; the black-market currency deals; and the compromises and backstabbing that ensured success in Moscow’s literary circles.
Instead, Flack focuses on aspects of the Stalinist terror that Bulgakov, like so many others, was experiencing but which could only be vaguely hinted at in his work – the terror of the knock on the door that could lead to Siberia or worse, and the anguish, despair, and courage of those whose loved ones had disappeared.
This sombre theme is more than counter-balanced by the gloriously disruptive antics of Woland and his crew. The audience arrives to the sight of a book lying in the centre of an empty stage, and we are constantly reminded by Matilda Ridgway, the sprightly narrator, and others, that we are watching the performance of a novel.
From this empty stage many surprises spring. Romanie Harper’s costumes are put on and removed with gay abandon as the performers move seamlessly from character to character. Indeed, the exit of one completely naked character is a highlight of the show, and not just for the audience.
Paula Arundell’s Woland exudes a quiet authority. The Devil has no need to swagger. She leaves it to her crew to make mischief, but when someone steps out of line she is formidable. As Azzazelo, Korovyev, and Behemoth, Gareth Davies, Amber McMahon, and Josh Price cut loose gleefully. As Margarita, Anna Samson charts her journey from hopelessness to anarchic abandon while never losing her overwhelming motivation: her love for the Master and her belief in his novel.
Mark Leonard Winter’s doubling as the Master and the Christ figure in his novel underlines the danger of speaking truth to power. He makes the rather passive Master sympathetic and captures the innocent openness of the character Bulgakov calls Yeshua HaNotsri. This sincerity intrigues and appeals to Marco Chiappi’s tormented Pilate.
Technically the show has the inventiveness of the best Belvoir productions. Along with Harper’s costumes, mention must be made of Nick Schlieper’s lighting, Stefan Gregory’s sound design, and the necromantic arts of Magic Inc.
In his director’s notes, Flack makes a plea for imagination to act as ‘a kind of resistance’ to the stultifying banality of a society addicted to profit. His production of Bulgakov’s great work is a glorious example of that resistance.
The Master & Margarita (Belvoir St Theatre) continues until 10 December 2023. Performance attended: 17 November.