Belvoir St Theatre, November 15


Paula Arundell, Matilda Ridgway and Tom Conroy. Photos: Brett Boardman.

Were adaptor/director Eamon Flack to fall under a tram tomorrow – as happens to poor Berlioz in the play – he can go knowing he’s made something to live in the annals of theatre. Cross my heart and hope to die, I promise this will surprise the hell out of you. Even if you know and worship Mikail Bulgakov’s phantasmagorical novel on which it’s based, your eyebrows will be exhausted from reaching heavenward, as your mouth will be from constantly dropping open in wonder, laughing or smiling – whether wryly or slyly.

Bulgakov, an intellectual thorn in Stalin’s regime, completed the book just before he died in 1940 – long before it finally appeared in 1967. Despite also being a dramatist, I doubt he imagined it becoming a play. Nor did I. Flack did, however, and with help from the actors he gradually refined a way of bringing to the stage a novel about a novel (about Pontius Pilate) that’s also tangled with other stories.

Mark Leonard Winter and Marco Chiappi. Photos: Brett Boardman.

These centre around Woland (Paula Arundell), a rather appealing Satan figure, and his henchmen Korovyev (Amber Mcmahon), Azzazelo (Gareth Davies) and Behemoth (Josh Price). Although they play some black practical jokes on the bewildered burghers of Moscow, they’re infinitely preferable to any surrounding authoritarian regimes, whether Roman in Palestine, Stalinists in Russia or your choice of current contenders.

You see you can make a pact with Woland, which you can’t really do with power-crazed humans. Margarita (Anna Sampson) does a deal with him to be reunited with her lover, The Master (Mark Leonard Winter), and Margarita is liberated and empowered in the process.

She calls him The Master because she believes his novel about Pilate to be supreme. Bulgakov’s genius was to be able include excerpts from this putative novel, and make them justify that epithet. Flack’s triumph is to have captured much of that quality, despite the excerpts becoming mere snippets so as to contain the performance to three hours.

Anna Sampson and Mark Leonard Winter. Photos: Brett Boardman.

The play isn’t perfect: it needs more of Woland and Price’s vastly entertaining Behemoth could include more crazy feline characteristics, for instance, and the revolve creaks. Nonetheless, exceptional performances abound, from Samson’s bold Margarita to Arundel’s rare presence as Woland, while McMahon and Davies excel as their playfully dangerous zanies. Winter is equally good as both the crushed artist that’s The Master and as Yeshua, the Christ-figure, whom Bulgakov depicts as a simple, kind, caring man, already alarmed by the twisting of his words – so imagine what he’d make of today’s evangelical maniacs! The consistently convincing Marco Chiappi plays Pilate, riddled with misgivings while doing what he believes is expected as a despot’s middle manager. The 10-strong cast – which sometimes seems like 20! – is completed by Tom Conroy, Matilda Ridgway, and a gripping Jana Zvedeniuk.

Gary Daley performs live accordion as part of Stefan Gregory’s edgy score. The music, costumes (Romanie Harper) and lighting (Nick Schlieper) decorate a simple black-box stage, with animated use of a revolve. The novel is replete with the devil’s wiles, and Adam Mada has gifted the show a host of stupendous magic and illusion tricks.

And that’s part of the point. Magic – whether illusory, theatrical or imagination-stirring – counters a world of lives half-lived; lives cheated by greed, power, beliefs and a creeping, grey conformity. “It doesn’t have to make any sense,” Korovyev tells us emphatically, and he’s right. But The Master & Margarita will restore your faith in the human spirit. Just don’t take the kids: Bulgakov’s descriptions of wildness and nudity are fully realised.

Until December 10.