The Master and Margarita
In circa-1930 Soviet Moscow, a man known only as “the Master” goes for a walk. He encounters a sad woman (Margarita) holding a bunch of yellow flowers, and the two begin strolling side-by-side. Their attraction is intense and immediate. She throws her flowers into the gutter; the Master picks them up and carries them for her. They embark on their relationship in secret and spend their evenings in the Master’s basement apartment as he writes a novel about Pontius Pilate. At Margarita’s encouragement, the Master brings his novel to an editor. The editor shoots him down and maliciously shares the novel with the publishing community. Soon the Master is called out in several newspaper articles as a Christ apologist. Ruined, the Master falls into despair. Margarita tells him that she will stay with him no matter what - and runs off to break up with her other lover. When she returns to the Master’s apartment in the morning, he is gone.
This all happened four months ago. The Master has been living in a mental institute since the night Margarita left. Margarita, despondent and unable to find the Master, has tried to move on by marrying someone else.
Meanwhile, an unexpected visitor arrives in Moscow: the devil himself. Aided by an absurd crew of assistants, he playfully wreaks havoc everywhere he goes. In the opening scene he introduces himself to a pair of men sitting in a park. After their conversation, one of the men slips on the streetcar tracks on his way to a meeting and gets beheaded by an oncoming streetcar. The other winds up in a mental institute — the very same one as the Master.
In another crazy episode, the devil tricks the manager of the Variety Theatre into letting him perform a “Black Magic” routine for a packed house. During the show the devil makes money rain from the ceiling and the audience members pocket it. It turns out that the notes are cursed, and the ladies in the audience are welcomed onstage to pick out beautiful new dresses for free. The only cost, they later realize, is that the dresses vanish when worn. In another trick, the master of ceremonies has a nasty encounter with one of the devil’s assistants, Behemoth. A giant tomcat who threatens to rip the MC’s his head off.
These seemingly unrelated plot lines intertwine on the night before the devil’s annual “spring ball of the full moon.” The gala calls for a woman named Margarita to perform the duties of hostess. Of all the women named “Margarita” in Moscow — there are exactly 121 of them — the devil’s ensemble finds our love-stricken Margarita to be the only suitable match. Margarita therefore makes a deal with the devil: she will host his gala, and in return, he will reunite her with the Master.
Between these primary chapters are excerpts from the Master’s novel about Pontius Pilate. Far from his depiction in the Bible, we come to know Pilate as a pitiful man plagued by a bad job and a searing headache. All he wants to do is lie down next to his loyal dog, but his encounter with Jesus ensures that he will get no rest. These, anyway, are the elements of “The Master and Margarita”. What they produce is a lot less straightforward and to bring it to the stage is an ambitious task as Eamon Flack and the excellent ensemble have done.
Chunks of this production are harder to engage with than others and perhaps that is not surprising given the 3-hour running length in its first public outing as a production. Ensemble movement scenes are to be savoured and the excellent choreography (Ella Evangelista) is a pleasure to experience. A large empty stage and an ensemble of ten players can offer myriad possibilities and this is where the Belvoir production really succeeds.
Emma Maye Gibson is credited as performance guide, and one certainly feels that the tasks required by the cast and the extensive nudity (which is never gratuitous or cringey) have been generously and sensitively shepherded by this extraordinary artist.
The literal magic used in the production adds many thrills and spills (Adam Mada). With incredible energy and heart at its core this is a deliberately scrappy and bare production but with focused modesty and the occasional Flack signature (the throwing of glitter before an exit or disappearance, for example). Romany Harper’s costumes and objects are beautiful with that hard-to-achieve understatement of seeming period and contemporary design. Space and lighting design by the masterful Nick Schielper makes use of a super reflective floor, revolve and the simplicity of a sophisticated lighting plan. Music and is used sparingly (Stefan Gregory, Jessica Dunn, Hamed Sadeghi) with an appearance from Gary Daly behind some crazy onstage instrumentals.
Mad to pick standouts from the stellar cast but shoutouts to Marco Chiappi who demonstrates far greater comic chops as Variety Theatre MC; Jana Zvedeniuk whose warmth and quiet charisma shine as Bulgakov’s wife Yelena; and the irrepressible Gareth Davies – is there no limit to his creativity? - incredible work!
There is something triumphant in the encounter with an adaptation of Bulgakov’s writing. Oh, the novel wasn’t published until the 1960s. It proves what the devil said: manuscripts don’t burn. Free speech cannot be suppressed forever. “The Master and Margarita” has risen from the literal ashes to become one of the world’s most important novels.
And yet, there is something deeply sad in this story. Perhaps free speech cannot be suppressed, but it can certainly be delayed. This is exactly what Stalin’s regime succeeded in doing. Bulgakov’s writing, so important today, would have been even more essential in the time and place it was written. “The Master and Margarita” is indeed “the greatest explosion of imagination, craziness, satire, humour, and heart,” but it is decidedly more. A time capsule containing its author’s life and a glimpse into Soviet society, “The Master and Margarita” – the book and now the play - is a moving reminder that creative freedom is something to be cherished.