From the outset, The Master and Margarita signals itself as an experience: a bold, immersive spectacle. To rework a lengthy, densely-plotted novel onto a ninety-minute play requires a focused distillation, and Magnolia Productions has extracted its excess and absurdity to wonderful effect, combining it with a shiver-inducing, mischievous darkness—not least because of its staging in St John’s gardens, at night, in the open cold.
Greeted by a Miltonic Satan—supremely charismatic, with a manic laugh that reverberates through the greenery—we are led to a stage composed of three spaces, ushered by a boisterous retinue whose hissing, tongue-clicking, and hyperbolic greetings seem to be omnipresent as they mix in with the crowd. The invisible barrier between performance and viewer is thus intrepidly shattered, a key component throughout the play: with the entire cast constantly on stage, the actors push through the standing audience, make ingenious comments, pick out individuals, speak an inch from their faces, and even offer drinks and waltz with them. This is promenade theatre pushed to its extreme.
Mikhail Bulgakov’s convoluted plot—of a poverty-stricken writer, the Master, his historical novel about Pontius Pilate, his muse, Margarita, and their Faustian pact with the Devil—is astutely played out with a full, inventive use of the space: at one point, Pilate is agonisingly jostled between the branches of a towering, bare tree and, at the very end, he follows a moonbeam path towards the literal moon, into the darkness. The actors themselves, who carry spotlights, and intensified through pointedly expressive acting, bring about the careful interplay between light and dark. This is particularly striking when Margarita, lost in the night, is greeted by the smooth-talking valet Korokiev as she suddenly illuminates her face in purple, bringing out both dramatic dark rings and an eerie yet comical expression, and giving both audience and Margarita a delightful start. The complex specificities of the plot are always secondary to the notion of a narrative being written on the spot, most patent when the devil booms out “We are not continuing this play until…” and forces a supposedly bored audience member to emerge from the crowd. Actors improvise, move around differently, engage the audience spontaneously, in such a way that no two performances can be the same, but all achieve a refreshingly untamed element, fostering a full immersion into a pleasurably immoral universe—one in which both characters and spectators hand over their fates to the Devil with alacrity.
Ali Porteus as Woland, the Devil, is a magnetic lead who possesses a rare dynamism, with a devil-may-care charm that makes the audience wilfully participate in impish celebrations, forming part of a crowd of murderers; as Azazello (hilariously played by a flippant Josh Dolphin) repeats ludicrously, “It’s a demonic pact”, and a gratifying one at that. Jack Clover as the Master is endearingly oblivious, and wonderfully complements both Gwenno Jones’s sharp and gracious Margarita, and Christopher White’s smoothly rendered Ivan, a maddened poet. The wily Korokiev and an overbearing doctor are both masterfully played by Mary Higgins. Behemoth, the sinuous, infantile, hissing Devil’s cat, whose constant presence among the audience and mischievous comments contribute to an overarching sense of defamiliarising intimacy, is vigorously played by Bee Liese. Alex Hartley as Pilate and Daisy Hayes as Yeshua, the two solemn characters, are dexterous and poignant; the latter’s plight when doubling as an infanticidal mother renders the play momentarily downbeat, which enhances the subsequent cheer.
In all, this is a first-rate cast that includes several familiar faces from comparably high-standard productions. The director, Helena Jackson (Around the world in 80 days, Noises Off) must be congratulated for such apt casting as well as for a production that is both practically accomplished and revitalising in its offbeat artistry. If, while following the bizarre plot, the intellect occasionally falters, the sense of visceral intensity never does. Throughout the interactions with the actors, the reminders of the performance’s fictitious nature, and the moving about between three stage-spaces—not to mention the November cold, counteracted by the retinue’s offerings of tea and cider—the spell is never broken. This is theatre that transports you to the hilt, and makes you feel guiltlessly devilish.
Image// Barack Larmy