The Master and Margarita

Mikhail Bulgakov (adapted by Max Rubin)
Lodestar Theatre
Unity Theatre, Liverpool

The Master and Margarita Credit: Brian Roberts
The Master and Margarita Credit: Brian Roberts

Max Rubin’s adaptation of Bulgakov’s celebrated novel attempts to make a virtue of the logical and logistical conundrums posed by this bagful of magic, love, theology, philosophy, politics and culture.

In large part, he succeeds. The episodic nature of the tale is employed to present the audience with an often thrilling, helter-skelter show, bursting at the seams with imagination and style. As director and key actor as well as adaptor, we might fear that Rubin has fallen prey to megalomania but, to his credit, his portrayal of Professor Woland (aka Satan) shows admirable restraint and a stage presence well suited to the Devil (and yes, that is meant as a compliment).

The first half of the show borders on excellent—packed with energy and full-blooded commitment from the cast (the over-worked stage hands also merit a mention here). Simon Hedger brings a high-camp malice to Koroviev and psychiatrist Dr Stravinsky that takes me back to Michael Palin in his Monty Python days.

Backdrop projections and other visual effects are artful, arresting and enhance and respond to the text rather than clashing with it (some lovely work here by digital artist, Adam York Gregory, video mapper Gray Hughes and set designer Ruta Staseviciute). Musical director Jack Quarton and composer David Ben Shannon make telling and commendable contributions to the production.

The final scene pre-interval—a demonic hornpipe, in which the ensemble, compelled by the magic of Woland and his sidekicks, can't stop themselves dancing and singing—is brilliantly choreographed and rendered, communicating a nightmarish blend of the ridiculous and the horrifying.

The show’s energy and imagination carry it along to this point, and to some extent our engagement is aided by a reasonable clarity of theme—rough justice. Woland and his henchman, Kiroviev, and henchcat, Behemoth (determinedly swaggered by Hannah Gover), are in mid-20th century Moscow to impose a mischievous, malicious retribution on the greedy, the corrupt and the hypocritical. Most of those punished are connected to the literary arts (critics, theatre management, and denizens of Massolit—a state-sanctioned literary trade union). The true artists, meanwhile, languish in an asylum.

After the interval, there is a strong opening when Margarita’s night flight over Moscow is beautifully staged. A combination of physical theatre technique and video projection technology creates genuine stage magic.

From that point on, the production becomes more messy and less effective. This is partly because Bulgakov’s tale itself gets more involved: the sorry love story of the eponymous couple, alongside the Master’s retelling of the story of Jesus of Nazareth, his disciple Matthew and the Roman official Pontius Pilate, present thematic complexities (confusions?) over which literary scholars continue to argue. Attempting to cram these into a two-hour stage show is admirable but ultimately ill-advised.

Then there is the issue of tone—the straight, almost declamatory tone used for the love story and the scenes set in 1st century Jerusalem feels at odds with the riotous melodrama of those doing, enduring or resisting the Devil’s work in Moscow.

Part of the problem here is the dialogue. Great novelists might come up with great lines of prose, but too often they fail to provide great dialogue (that’s what dramatists are for). As a result, the transcendent love between the Master and Margarita feels earthbound, while the theological journeys of Matthew and Pilate sink into the desert sand under the weight of their words. This is a shame as so much else about this production flies.

Rubin’s determination to do the fullest justice possible to Bulgakov’s novel leads to a plethora of potential final scenes and a second half that feels long (whereas as the first whizzes by). This adaptation tries too hard to allow all of Bulgakov’s themes to step forward and take a bow. In the end, this muddles and impairs the impact of an otherwise admirable production. Even if we allow that ‘manuscripts can’t burn’ they can and ought to be cut—sensitively but ruthlessly (even if the purists squeal in indignation).

Olivia Meguer (as Margarita), Jack Quarton (the poet Bezdomny, Matthew the Levite) and Teresa O’Brien (in a host of minor roles) all contribute wholeheartedly (O’Brien showing herself a real trouper by refusing to be phased by a recalcitrant false mustache).

Lodestar’s The Master and Margarita is like one of those bravura performances by an Olympic gymnast, going for gold against the odds—some of the somersaults and backflips don’t quite come off and the landing staggers to a halt. But it does not fall; it stands on its feet, arms raised in salute and we are very pleased to witness such daring and skill.

Not gold, but a very worthy competitor. Worthy of your time and your ticket money.

Reviewer: Martin Thomasson

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