God has been pronounced dead by the literary world of Stalin’s Russia. And if God is dead, then surely so is The Devil.
But who then is the charismatic stranger flanked by a pair of bizarre henchmen – one a giant talking black cat – who appears in a Moscow park, claiming (among other things) to have witnessed the sentencing of Jesus Christ by Pontius Pilate?
It’s enough to make a person lose their mind – or their head.
So begins Mikhail Bulgakov’s whiplash-inducing novel, and so begins Belvoir’s adaptation of it – one that recreates the kinetic, wildly fabular qualities of Bulgakov’s masterpiece with the help of a skilled (and frequently stark-naked) ensemble cast, a revolving stage, some old school stage magic and lashings of wicked humour.
From simple beginnings – three actors reading from a paperback copy of the book – the production spirals into three hours of pure, human-powered theatre. It is probably the most energising mainstage spectacle I’ve seen all year – and the only one that physically spills out into the world beyond the stage.
The acting-devising ensemble is terrific: Matilda Ridgway’s earnest bookworm of a Narrator; Paula Arundell’s suave and devilishly dangerous Professor Woland; Josh Price’s thuggish Behemoth, Woland’s feline emissary.
Tom Conroy appeals as the mentally shattered editor, Ivan Ponyrev, and the distraught tax collector-turned-disciple Matthew Levi.
Gareth Davies, resplendent in a green track suit, is perfectly repulsive as Woland’s henchman Azzazello; Amber McMahon dazzles as Korovyev, his personal assistant.
Marco Chiappi brings gravitas to proceedings as the migraine-stricken Pilate. He’s hilarious later as ‘Glenn’, a modern-day homme de théâtre who bears some resemblance to Tom Wright, this production’s dramaturg.
Mark Leonard Winter provides two memorable, inextricably linked central roles, those of The Master, a lotto-winner-turned-novelist, and his rendering of the wandering philosopher Yeshua, who, like The Master, is being ground under the wheels of state power.
From a quietly intense start, Anna Samson grows to dominate the stage as Margarita. Her magic-propelled flights over Moscow are made to seem like true acts of liberation. The opening night audience cheered her on.
It doesn’t matter, really, if you know the book or not. The adaptation stands its own ground as a piece of storytelling. That said, one of the pleasures of the work lies in experiencing the elasticity and mischief of Belvoir’s treatment. The scene in which The Master first meets Margarita is inventively conjured in revolving triplicate. Woland’s stage magic act is made simultaneously funny and terrifying for those in the front row.
A giddy-making hayride of a show, The Master & Margarita salutes Bulgakov’s novel by imbuing its adaptation with the kind of reckless creativity we imagine was required to write it in the first place – a recklessness we sorely lack in so much of our theatre.
The Master & Margarita plays at Belvoir, Surry Hills, until 10 December.