Anyone who has ever read Bulgakov’s greatest work, will agree that Master and Margarita is one of the most complicated and fascinating works of the 20th century. Which is why I was rather excited and perhaps a bit nervous to hear that the Theatre Collection in Camden was doing an adaptation of it.
After all, a translated theatrical version of a book written by a linguistic Russian genius, part social satire, part fantasy, sounded like an impossible challenge to me. That’s fantasy with a talking cat, a flying pig and satan in town for the ball. Seriously. But then the West End has “Shrek the Musical” on offer, so keeping my mind open, along I went.
At this point I have to admit, I have read Master and Margarita four times. No, actually not true, I have attempted reading it three times, and finally on the fourth time got though it, a little confused but mostly there (I like to think).
In summary the plot centres around a playwright who names himself Master, and the Devil, who is visiting Moscow to host a summer ball.
Master, our good and noble protagonist, is in the process of putting on his first play. The play is set in Jerusalem and focuses on the legend of Pontius Pilate and Jesus, which of course, during Soviet Russia’s atheist state creates a problem of conscience for the beauracratic writers association who must approve and review Master’s play. In following the status quo, the review given is not favourable and drives Master to the final brink of insanity.
At this time the Devil arrives in Moscow, naturally getting involved with these unfolding events, and with his merry troupe of mischievous minions (enter talking cat), wreaks havoc amongst the good comrades of the ‘MUSSOLIT’ writers association. Bulgakov wrote Master and Margarita between 1928 and 1940, to set the scene on historical context here. The Devil, is of course therefore, a foreigner, a German none the less… What is interesting, of course is Bulgakov’s contempt for the good old comrades of the MUSSOLIT. Bulgakov himself questioned, how a Russian citizen could be a true writer and artist whilst working within the parameters set by the Soviet state. In many ways, as you see, this work is his response to what was happening in his country.
In the midst of all this, Master meets Margarita, a beautiful married woman, who falling in love with Master and his work, is prepared to go to any length to save her lover and pursue true love. As the final vote on his play is cast, and Master burning his script, is taken away to a mental asylum, Margarita vows that she will give anything to have her lover return to her. That anything, it turns out is a range of bizarre tasks including hosting a fairly unsavoury crowd of evil ghosts at the Devil’s summer ball, in exchange for which Master’s sanity is returned to him.
From fundamentals of characters, story telling and atmosphere, the cast of the Theatre Collection did a fantastic job. In all, the cast were brilliant and managed to portray a multifaceted plot with style and elegance. To name a few highlights in performance, one of the founders of the Theatre Collection, Shaban Arifi, appears as Master himself, and as always is a pleasure to observe. In particular, I also enjoyed watching William Raphael’s portrayal of Woland the Devil; truly a brilliant casting and a pleasure to watch; Raphael engaged a perfect balance of humour and malevolence. Alys Daroy’s Margarita was also another excellent choice, and might I add that with half the play requiring this character to be ‘flying naked’ (or in this case a sheer drape), it helped that she is exceedingly beautiful!
Now the Theatre Collection, to set the scene, is true independent theatre art, with the intense, intimate experience that a small theatre imparts on its audience. Master and Margarita therefore had a unique setting to work in, and some strong challenges to overcome with the more fantastical elements of the plot. With some artistic license and a cast of talented actors, once again this theatre entertained and gave a wonderful adaptation of a true Russian classic. I will say however that this play was a more ambitious undertaking than those I had previously seen here, and parts such as the ‘flying’ Margarita, required more artistic license than perhaps such a small setting allows. That is my only criticism though, and is only as result of the theatre’s size and low key staging.
In all a successful play, thanks to an highly interesting and creative take on Bulgakov’s classic book, making a truly bizarre plot line more accessible and clear to those of us that aren’t ready to take on the book!
All images courtesy the Theatre Collection.