The Master and Margarita
Adaption: Eamon Flack
Director: Eamon Flack
Belvoir Street Theatre
November 11 – December 10, 2023
The enthusiastic opening night audience gave a standing ovation to Eamon Flack’s ambitious and magical adaptation of Mikhail Bulgakov’s complex and layered novel The Master and Margarita. What is the connection between a novel written during the Stalinist regime and only published as a complete book in 1967 and a contemporary audience whose freedom of expression seems unrestricted by comparison?
Flack draws a parallel between the virus of Stalinism and the Covid pandemic which produced an environment of fear and powerlessness in a society that believed itself comfortably immune to widescale infection – and particularly the entertainment industry – but maybe that time is behind us. Perhaps a time for rejoicing at newfound vitality fully expressed through the supremely entertaining visual staging, the often outrageously comical interaction between characters and the staggering courage of the actor’s revelatory performances. But maybe we respond at a deep level to the still very relevant questions posed by the triple narrative.
The vigorous narrator/participant (Matilda Ridgeway), who helpfully reads from the actual text, bridges the gap between the chronologically distant story lines, the interrogation of a soulfully honest Yeshua of Nazareth (Mark Winter) by a conflicted Pontius Pilate (an excellent Marco Chiappi) and a visit by a convincingly confident Devil (Paula Arundell) – in the guise of a “foreign” Professor Woland – and her weird entourage to 1930s Moscow. What has the Devil come for? Is it simply to expose the still bourgeois ambitions of the new literary elite or mock the money-minded vanity of the Muscovites through staging a dynamic Variety Show with magic tricks and pertinent illusions? Even poor Marx knew that any political system would work if people were different.
Into this mix is a third narrative thread, that of a despairing novelist whose work is rejected by the regime. Entitled “The Master” (also, Winter) by his lover, the initially submissive and already married Margarita (Anna Samson) meet on a spring day amid a downpour of yellow flowers, and helpless to combat the force of love they meet clandestinely in the Master’s basement. He writes, she worships him. When he disappears – spirited away to a strangely quite pleasant psychiatric institution – Margarita has no knowledge of his whereabouts. And the Devil’s opportunity has come. And what she has in mind is quite a radical remodelling of the Faustian deal. You will be surprised and hopefully perplexed enough to think about the inseparability of good and evil.
While the crazy antics of the Devil’s entourage – the big bad black cat (Josh Price), the slimy Azezello (Gareth Davies), the sly Korovye (Amber McMahon) – supplied the driving energy of the performance, quieter moments command deep attention. Chiappi as Pilate gives a memorable performance of a man who might never find rest again, and Yeshua’s critique of Matthew Levi’s (Tom Conroy, also endearing as rejected poet Ivan) muddled recording of his words is sweetly ingenuous. Jana Zvedeniuk as Yelena, Bulgakov’s wife, touches a tender spot as the woman who preserved and protected Bulgakov’s manuscript and Samson astonishes with her portrayal of female power and sexuality.
The stage setting is magical, and the talented crew of creatives have created some truly impressive special effects which you must see to appreciate.