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Review: The Master and Margarita at Belvoir Street Theatre

Updated: Nov 21, 2023

Review by Andrea Bunjamin

How does one perform an ‘unstageable play’? For most, this question mind-numbingly rings in our heads as we enter Belvoir’s Upstairs theatre for the adaptation of The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. Directed and adapted by Eamon Flack, and from the guidance of the production’s dramaturg, Tom Wright, this play, that thrives on confusion, is an audacious attempt to discover how we all can free ourselves through the bizarre. And perhaps, not lose our minds in the process…..

It begins with the Devil, Woland (Paula Arundell), disguised as a magician as they descend upon 1930s Moscow with several plans to stir up mayhem along with their riotous retinue; the menacing Korovyev (Amber McMahon), the deranged assassin, Azazello (Gareth Davies), and the enormous black cat, Behemoth (Josh Price). Their first living victim upon arrival, being Ivan/Bezdomny (Tom Conroy), a young aspiring poet driven mad in his pursuit of the entourage. The story also brings us to Jerusalem and follows the tormented Pontius Pilate (Marco Chiappi) as he sentences Yeshua of Nazareth to death. Then, follows the Devil’s fate with a nameless author known only as ‘The Master’ (Mark Leonard Winter) who is stuck in a mental hospital, and his brave lover, ‘Margarita’ (Anna Samson).

With narratives that require every one of its participants to stretch their imaginations to its limits, we can easily see why the novel’s mystical theatricalities are hard to represent in theatre (And frankly, intimidates this reviewer). A world where money rains above, dark magic is on full display, and a witch flies across the sky wrecking havoc, the list goes on and on. To call this adaptation ambitious is an understatement. Lovers of the book can only wait in bated breath for the execution of its iconic moments, while those who go in blind can hopelessly expect the unexpected.

With only a bare theatre and a copy of the book as a starting point to ‘summon the story out of thin air’, the production’s driving force was to place their own contemporary spin on the tale. The crucial presence of ‘The Narrator’ (Matilda Ridgway) who transcends time and space becomes a reassuring guide to the audience in the heat of tricky plot points. Chapter by chapter, Ridgway’s reading of the actions taking place encapsulates the love and refusal of cynicism her character has to Bulgakov’s story. Her performance of the narrative voice(s) that weaved the play together hints at the remarkable level of collaboration the team had, which sustains itself as the book is passed from one performer to another. Showcasing that the play really is bigger than the sum of its parts. Throughout the show, the performers are also shameless in literally bringing the story into the now, by acknowledging the current setting of Belvoir Street theatre and our present. Making playful jabs at the audience, and reminding us several times how certain lines are actually from the book. Seriously.

The creative decision to, at times, deviate and skip some chapters enables the show’s pacing to recentre itself during the escalating absurdity in this medium. This strategy also tells the audience of the parallels this novel had to Bulgakov’s lived experiences in writing the tale during the height of Stalinism and the authoritative regime at that time. The introduction of Yelena (Jana Zvedeniuk), the author’s wife, and the person who saved the manuscript after the author’s death, reestablishes the stakes but also on the novel’s survival against the odds. A story within a story, within a story.

At its core the Master and Margarita is a comedy and political satire on society. It becomes evidently clear that the Devil doesn’t just reserve their paradoxical mischief to Moscow’s literary elite. Asking the question, ‘Has anything changed?’ The humour goes as far as actively alluding to some astonishing spectacles that those familiar with the novel would get, teasing us with a cheeky grin. ‘Should we or should we not?’ The casual mention of Chapter 12 being enough to raise some eyebrows. The encouragement of light participation from the audience takes its own unique turn, a different kind of engagement from the novel.

With the use of a revolving stage, the pace of the story changes between each scene and ingrains a certain atmosphere in the narration. The fast and whirling movements of the retinue, the Master’s slow and sombre madness, and Margarita’s arc. Thanks to the choreography and movement direction of Elle Evangelista, Nigel Poulton, and Tim Dashwood, the flow of the ensemble during scene transitions, expressive motions, and role alterations gave us a satisfying dance with the devil.

Nothing on that stage stayed stationary, and the production impressively didn’t have to integrate any overly complex fixtures to emulate the magic acts that took place. Through the use of individualistic set pieces and recognisable props, Romanie Harper’s objects and Nick Schlieper’s space and lighting design made the rotation in settings surprising, while also making the unbelievable a reality. Moving from the dreamy and fantastical to the dreadful in a heartbeat.

Speaking of black magic, massive credits must be bestowed on Adam Mada and Harry Milas from Magic Inc. who produced the signature illusions and baffling tricks that gave the Master and Margarita its flavour. And on numerous occasions make us question what the hell just happened? Sound designers, Stefan Gregory’s, musician Gary Daley’s, and Jess Dunn’s, use of live and pre-recorded music brightens up the decadence and revelry of the moment. The jig of the accordion being a massive plus. The difference of the sound effects particularly in dialogue for the performers on and off stage blurs the line on who’s narrative voice is still speaking. The foreign and elegant inflections of the Devil’s tone in their introduction still lingers cunningly in our ears.

After all the emotional vibrancy of the three-hour long play, another question arises. Did the spell of the story work? When asked about the possibility of being another unsuccessful adaptation of the novel, Winter had added concretely that Belvoir’s attempt serves as ‘a big invitation to fail gloriously.’ The Master and Margarita teaches its viewers about the consequences of society suppressing our imaginations and ability to create. Eternal damnation. To hold a story that makes you fear the knocking on the door. But when a horrible end is an inevitability, creation becomes the greatest act of rebellion.

And I for one envy those of you who get to see it for the first time.

Image Credit: Brett Boardman


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