The Master and Margarita can be one of those classics that sits on your bookshelf unopened despite being on your list of ‘must read’ books. Well, after you have seen the Barbican’s thrilling production of Mikhail Bulgakov’s great novel, you might finally be inspired to pick it up. The book has often been considered impossible to film or stage, due to the epic narrative which sweeps between two parallel stories, set two thousand years apart. One story is set in Moscow under Soviet rule and the other plot features Pontius Pilate and Jesus Christ in Jerusalem.
Bulgakov’s text was intended as a satire of Soviet life which presents in theatrical form the Great Terror of the thirties. He presents a world of oppression and terror in Soviet Russia where freedom, artistic and spiritual, has become rare. The most famous phrase in the book is his defiant ‘Manscripts don’t burn’. Bulgakov wrote in 1930:
“To struggle against censorship, whatever its nature, and whatever the power under which it exists, is my duty as a writer, as are calls for freedom of the press. I am a passionate supporter of that freedom…That is one of the characteristics of my creative work, and that alone is sufficient to make it impossible for my works to exist in the USSR”.
He began work on the novel in early 1929 and revised it many times. The novel was therefore omnipresent throughout his life as he lived through a period of great suffering in Russian history. Throughout the play there are echoes of Bulgakov’s experiences living in Stalinist Russia. There is one scene when the Master is standing in the snow in a coat with no buttons. Anyone reading the novel at the time would have known that that the missing buttons told the reader that the protagonist had been imprisoned, perhaps even tortured, in the Lubyanka prison. These seemingly small details therefore become very important to the narrative.
The Devil is presented as a sinister figure, called Professor Woland, who is dressed all in black with black gloves and dark glasses. He has conversations which discuss the existence of God, Jesus and the authenticity of the Gospels. Weighty themes such as destiny, truth, authority and death are omnipresent throughout. His cat companion is human sized and is moved around the stage as a large puppet. Constantly swearing and with some of the funniest lines in the play, the cat provides some welcome comedic relief to the rest of the sinister narrative.
The set is limited but used to full effect such as in the many uses of a police box and the clever use of staging to recreate the experience of a crowded Moscow subway train. The jarring background music throughout the play adds to the tense atmosphere on stage. Characters also make interjections to speak directly to us, the audience, through microphones stood on the stage at various moments. The text has even been updated for the ipad generation with references to popular culture today.
The director Simon McBurney makes effective use of voiceovers when characters are speaking which creates an atmosphere of menace and reinforces the point that they, and we, are being watched. He also makes extensive use of video projection and multi-media, such as a spiralling large map of Moscow projected onto the back wall, as well as photographs of Stalin. Jesus is presented as a naked, emaciated figure who has been accused by Pontius Pilate of inciting the public to destroy a temple. Cameras are used to hone in on the bound hands of Christ and for close ups of individual faces.
McBurney might be better known to many as the actor who voices Kreacher in Harry Potter and for his starring role in the Vicar of Dibley. In the programme notes the director explains his interest in staging Bulgakov’s famous novel and his trip to Moscow which provided inspiration for the production. He writes that he first considered the novel fantasy but it was only when he visited his brother who lived in Russia that he realised how Master and Margarita was a comment on contemporary life in the Soviet Union. “It was about their lives. For them, Bulgakov the surgeon wielded a razor-sharp satirical knife that could slice through the absurd hypocrisy of their society and expose the fear that lay inside”. It is clear that that the production is influenced by Bulgakov’s personal experiences. The designer confirms that he and the rest of the team all read the author’s letters. This explains the set design which presents images of buildings with bricked up windows that cannot be opened. Indeed Moscow is almost a character in the novel and the Master’s basement is said to be based on Bulgakov’s flat in Sadovaya Street.
Viewers who saw the National Theatre’s recent production of Collaborators with Simon Russell Beale as Stalin will already be familiar with the story of the Soviet leader personally responding to one of Bulgakov’s letters. The author requested permission to emigrate which was denied. He therefore wrote to Stalin that “if I am condemned to keep silent in the Soviet Union for the rest of my days, then I ask the Soviet Government to give me a job in my speciality and assign me to a theatre as a titular director”. Soon after the Moscow Arts Theatre hired Bulgakov as a literary consultant and assistant director.
The story of Master and Margarita shows the difficulty of life in the Soviet Union. It also in content and form breaks with the confines of ‘socialist realism’. The intertwined narratives of the Master and Pontius Pilate are deliberately challenging. The novel’s shifting time and space are designed to astonish the reader and create considerable challenges for a theatrical adaptation. However, this is a very clever and slick production that has been beautifully directed and is well acted. The play was first presented by Complicite at the Barbican earlier in 2012 and has since toured across Europe. Bulgakov’s magical tale with its historical time travelling and intertwining story lines is a perfect complement to Complicite’s inventive style. At nearly three hours long this is a play which makes demands on the viewer and forces us to concentrate and watch. But it is worth it. Londoners who missed out on the first run should therefore get their tickets now before it sells out.
The Master and Margarita
by Mikhail Bulgakov
14 December 2012 – 19 January 2013 / 19:15, 13:30, 16:00
Box Office: 0845 120 7511.