THE MASTER AND MARGARITA
THE MASTER AND MARGARITA, Upstairs Belvoir at Belvoir St Theatre, 15 November-10 December 2023. Photography by Brett Boardman: above - the company; below - Tom Conroy, Matilda Ridgway, and Josh Price; below again - Anna Samson and Paula Arundell
You can do a lot of damage with a book – ask any dictator. The most banned book globally is George Orwell’s 1984. Toni Morrison is the most banned author in the USA. Among those who’ve been banned from time to time in Australia are the comical (Jackie Collins), the obvious (Marquis de Sade), and the obscure but, on investigation, the bleeding obvious: Desert and Eliezer Flores’s How to Make Disposable Silencers. (Available on Amazon: $40+postage.)
Then there’s Mikhail Bulgakov’s celebrated 396 pages of The Master and Margarita. Unlike his earlier work, it was not banned, probably because it remained unpublished until decades after his death – and that of the Soviet dictator. In truth, it was as good as banned because, in the last decade of his life, Bulgakov’s work was suppressed as he lived under the terror of Stalin’s reign. However, the dictator adored Bulgakov’s play The Day of the Turbins, and dramaturg Tom Wright wryly notes in the Belvoir program, “Stalin was a passionate theatre enthusiast and a mass murderer.” For Bulgakov, one trait canceled out the other.
The Master and Margarita, as adapted and directed by Eamon Flack, in a production “devised by the cast and creative team,” is that, as a play, it explodes off the stage in a rollicking, kaleidoscopic spectacle of joy and mayhem for just under three hours – including interval. Opening with the Narrator (magnetic, dippy Matilda Ridgway) reading from a well-loved copy of the book, we’re introduced to Pontius Pilate (magisterial Marco Chiappi) being discomfited by the antics of an innocently articulate bumpkin (poignant, touching Mark Leonard Winter) whose storytelling is enthralling the masses and ought to be punished, preferably by crucifixion.
Except this may be a delusion being suffered by the Master – a novelist confined to a psych hospital for writing about Jesus. Observing all with much delight is Professor Woland aka The Devil (powerful, hilarious Paula Arundell) who’s arrived in Moscow to reveal the glitterati’s venality and sanctimony and have fun at their expense. At this point, if you haven’t already read the book (many have and adore it), you really ought to just surrender to the narrative(s). Simply sit back and enjoy the extraordinary work of imagination, political subtlety, heartfelt humanity, and recurring comedy that is this glorious answer to “Why theatre?”
The Master and Margarita is bold, bonkers, and a fabulous antidote to the current bewilderment of what Flack describes as “a pandemic of fears, stupidities, lies, theories, beliefs, stories, images – some useful and benevolent, some destructive - either way, a lot of them.” The main antidote is, of course, storytelling – the human activity that survives everything and helps humanity survive everything too.
On a bare black stage in which is set a well-used revolve, the action is non-stop as the company enacts the play’s defiance of the edict, “This Bulgakovism must be crushed.” In the end, it’s clear the “-ism” is actually love and optimism, and no wonder these qualities so incensed Stalin – and all other dictators to this day, from Pontius Pilate to the Soviets, to Pol Pot, Kim Jong Un, and Rupert Murdoch. With Anna Samson as a bravely undaunted Margarita, and tireless support and constant smarts from Josh Price, Amber McMahon, Gareth Davies, Tom Conroy, and Jana Zvedeniuk, this is a production that should leave you reeling and exhilarated.
In more ways than one, The Master and Margarita is magical, from the world’s longest tapeworm to the spare, staged spectacle conjured up by costume designer Romanie Harper, space and lighting designer Nick Schlieper, sound designer and composer Stefan Gregory, choreographer Elle Evangelista, and others who shall not be named for fear of spoilers. Leave your cares at home and savour what feels like a game-changer in Sydney theatre. Recommended without reservation.