A MAGICAL DANCE WITH THE DEVIL
By Matthew Westwood
The Australian 2 November 2023
Review: The Master and Margarita. A remarkable, subversive work of Soviet-era literature that has inspired The Rolling Stones and Baz Luhrmann takes to the Sydney stage.
Mikhail Bulgakov's novel, The Master and Margarita, is an extraordinary document in anyone's book. It is a piece of Soviet-era magic realism, if you can imagine such a thing, written in secret at a time when Stalin was ramping up his persecution of freethinking writers and artists.
The novel is a phantasmagoria in which Woland, aka the Devil, and his diabolical entourage descend on Moscow and cause comical havoc through the city. The Master and Margarita of the title are a writer and his muse, stand-ins for Bulgakov and Elena Bulgakova, his wife, who rescued The Master and Margarita, the novel, from the authorities and almost certain destruction.
It is a fantastic performance of literary and political daring. Yet the images it conjures are so magical and implausible that you wonder how it could ever have been filmed or staged. In fact, there have been multiple adaptations for the cinema, theatre, TV and radio. A new film by Russian-American director Michael Lockshin – originally titled Woland, its release has been delayed because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine – is due in cinemas early next year. Baz Luhrmann has long been a fan of the novel and secured the rights to it in 2019, saying at the time he was "thrilled to finally have the opportunity to do an interpretation of this groundbreaking work".
And the book famously inspired a masterwork in another genre, the Rolling Stones' Sympathy for the Devil, and its refrain: "Tell me baby, what's my name?"
Now it's the turn of Sydney's Belvoir theatre company and artistic director Eamon Flack to have their dance with the Devil. Flack, who has been obsessed with The Master and Margarita since he first read it as a student more than 20 years ago, has written an adaptation that will involve a large cast of 10 actors, complete with music and, of course, magic.
The novel that would seem inherently unstageable is, Flack says, alive with an irrepressible theatricality.
"The unstageability is one of the things that attracted me to it," he says. "(Bulgakov) wrote compulsively, a kind of private, subversive theatre in the form of a novel. There is theatre in the book in a literal sense, but also I think of Woland's gang, who are more like a roving troupe of mad clowns than they are devils. Part of the joke of the book is that theatre does come back to Moscow in the form of the Devil's gang at a time when theatre had been suppressed into such obedience, such servility and abasement. There's that force of chaos inside it – it's like saying 'Let's unleash theatre again, inside Stalin's Moscow'."
Bulgakov was Ukrainian – he was born in Kyiv in May 1891 – but Flack says his decision to produce a stage version of The Master and Margarita predates the Russian invasion last year. Instead, it had its origins in the early days of the pandemic when Belvoir organised a series of workshops to help keep actors employed when theatres were closed.
"It was a group of 10 actors who met once a week for three months," Flack says. "We would read classic plays and then we read this. We'd improvise, we'd read aloud, we'd give people homework and come back the next week and make a two-minute scene based on a character or a paragraph. We just worked off the book, and kept workshopping whenever we could across the two years that followed.
"I knew Bulgakov would read parts of the novel in secret, and it feels like it was meant to be shared and read in that way," he continues. "And as soon as you lift it off the page, it is inherently theatrical and full of life. Our whole approach just began with a bare stage and reading from the book – and that's how we begin the show."
And, of course, there is magic. Flack says "everything is on the table" as he and the cast have worked out how to bring the madcap antics depicted in the novel to life, including dance, physical theatre, stand-up gags and music. It features Mark Leonard Winter as the Master, Anna Samson as Margarita, and Paula Arundell as Woland.
The complicated plot lines have been streamlined for the stage but Flack, who worked on the adaptation with Tom Wright as dramaturge, says the essential elements are there. It involves an author, known only as the Master, who has been writing a novel about Pontius Pilate and the trial of Jesus Christ, here called Yeshua Ha-Notsri. The novel has been banned by the Soviet literature authorities and the Master accused of "Pilatism" in a campaign against him in the press.
In despair he decides one night to burn the manuscript and it is all but destroyed when his lover, Margarita, pulls a sheaf from the flames and wraps it lovingly in a ribbon.
The Master – he wears a greasy black cap with the letter "M" embroidered in yellow silk – is admitted to a psychiatric hospital, while Margarita is transformed into a witch and flies over Moscow on a magic broom. She becomes a favourite of Woland and the hostess of a devilish winter ball. At the end, the Master and Margarita are reunited and, as they enter the afterlife, are freed from persecution.
Another dimension of the story is the Master's novel about Pilate and Yeshua. Pilate is transfixed by the "travelling philosopher" whom he condemns to death – although the version given here is different from the gospel accounts. Yeshua tells Pilate that one of his followers, Matthew Levi, has written down but wilfully distorted his teaching.
But who in this satirical story is Woland, an evil figure with frightening powers but also something of a pantomime devil, whose retinue includes a walking, talking black cat called Behemoth?
"I think he's meant to be the Devil – 'Let's pop the Devil in Moscow and see what happens'," Flack says. "I don't think he's meant to stand in for Stalin. He's meant to be a joke at the expense of the viciously enforced, materialist world view of Stalin's regime."
Flack's stage adaptation is structured a bit like a Russian doll: the story of a book within a book within a book. The inner doll is the report by Matthew Levi of Yeshua and Pilate, which in turn is the subject of the Master's almost-destroyed novel that is rescued by Margarita. The outer doll is the samizdat novel The Master and Margarita and its author, Mikhail Bulgakov.
Bulgakov had been a doctor in Kyiv but moved to Moscow in 1921 where he turned his attention to writing. (He lived in an apartment, now a museum, close to where some of the key incidents in The Master and Margarita are set.) His play, The Days of the Turbins, was staged at Stanislavsky's Moscow Art Theatre and another play, Zoyka's Apartment, at the Vakhtangov Theatre. But by 1928, at the beginning of Stalin's dictatorship, his plays were banned from performance and the manuscript of an early novel, A Dog's Heart, was seized. Then, in echoes of the treatment meted out to composer Dmitri Shostakovich, Bulgakov would find himself back in favour, only for his work to be banned again.
"Bulgakov started writing (The Master and Margarita) in the 1920s and he burned it out of fear, after the first stirrings of what later became the terror," Flack says.
"His apartment was ransacked and his diaries and notebooks were seized. But he was unable to forget about the idea. And when he fell in love with the woman who became his third wife, Elena, he started a slightly different version in which the love story turns up for the first time.
"But he wrote the book in secret. He was at the time fighting to remain an officially sanctioned writer. The more intense his battle to be allowed to remain a working artist, the more he was suppressed, the more the secret book came to life. On his deathbed he and Elena agreed that the book was worth trying to keep."
The story of The Master and Margarita certainly has parallels with Bulgakov and Elena, and also with other writers who lived through those terrifying years. Elena organised the novel's first publication in censored, serial form in 1966.
"The decision that Elena Bulgakova made to keep and hide and seek to publish the book is an extraordinary one," Flack says. "She was not alone of course. Nadezhda Mandelstam learned her husband (Osip Mandelstam's) poetry by heart to save it from oblivion. Much of the work of Anna Akhmatova was learned by heart in order to save it. All of the great glories of that group of artists at that time existed in the minds and hearts of a group of women over many decades when many of the men were dead."
While Flack does not make a direct comparison between the Soviet Union under Stalin and the hardships experienced by the Australian arts community during the Covid lockdowns, when actors suddenly found themselves out of work and without livelihoods, his version of The Master and Margarita comes from a similar "Bulgakovian moment" – a tonic for despair.
"We sometimes think of the imagination as this strange state that you enter into," he says. "But I think it's about being able to take the insanity around you and make it into something."
The Master and Margarita, Belvoir St Theatre, Sydney, November 11-December 10.
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IMAGE: "Inspiration": The Master and Margarita. Picture: Brett Boardman