The Master and Margarita

Fri 5th – Mon 29th August 2016

reviews

Darcy Rollins

at 15:43 on 25th Aug 2016

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To put it in the most simple words possible, Satan arrives in Moscow, his interest is piqued by a piece of literature and anarchy ensues, basically.

This play is an adaption of the Russian, and so naturally confusing, classic that is 'The Master and Margarita'. The book is a convoluted satire on various pillars of society and conventionality (in Russia at that point in time). The pompous sanctimony of artists and writers is attacked sharply; again the church was instrumental in adding to this exaggerated sense of the sacred. Yet, I fear I did not truly 'get' it. Satire is something hoping to make you think rather than feel. So perhaps an inherent problem with satires of the past is you are not always acquainted with what they want you to think about.

However, for what satire I could find, it is acted perfectly. Eyes slightly wider than normal shock; shouting exaggerated by the acoustics of the church. These acoustics occasionally and sadly work against this extremely competent cast. The acting, in general, is perfection. The cast vibrantly bring the figures of this twisted tale to life. Actions are extraordinarily co-ordinated adding to this sense of darker powers at play and possession.

The speed is almost overpowering as narration is mixed with action at a dizzying rate. But I feel that this is intentional, almost a demonstration of the nature of storytelling, truth and untruth.

I do not like audience participation. I also do not like dancing. Yet, my experience of it did add to my enjoyment of the show, despite standing on the actor’s foot on three occasions and knocking into a tray of glasses with a hapless giggle and “sorry!”. Getting the audience members involved is a natural continuation of being told openly that a story is being. It is far more than a mere token.

The set is simply sublime. A meeting with the devil in a church has an obvious perfect contrast to it. It perfectly illuminates the truth and untruth theme. The beauty of the venue cannot be underestimated. The power of this is strengthened by the use of lights of different colours that continue the feeling of enchantment. It is beautiful, haunting, and otherworldly. It is a cliché to say that the audience is transported into another world but that is what happens in this story. In fact, this is a play that makes you want to invoke all the clichéd compliments. It is breathtaking, magical and you must see it.

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Ed Grimble

at 15:48 on 25th Aug 2016

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Mikhail Bulgakov’s magnum opus, ‘The Master and Margarita, is a notoriously dense and indecipherable piece of prose. Since its 1967 publication, the novel has bee scrutinised as a reaction to atheistic propaganda in Russia, a development of Tolstoy's nonresistance to evil, and even as a piece of Freemason literature. The decision to adapt to for the stage- well, for the nave of St. Cuthbert’s church- is certainly a courageous one for which writer Alexander Hartley should be commended.

Bulgakov’s novel oscillates between 1930s Russia, and Jerusalem at the time of Pontius Pilot. In the former, the devil appears under the guise of the urbane foreign professor ‘Woland’ to two atheists at Paradise Ponds who are discussing the non-existence of Jesus Christ. The events in Jerusalem concern the meeting between Yeshua and Pilot, and the ‘wandering philosophers’ eventual arrest and sentencing. Romance, grief, dark sorcery all dominate the events that follow: a series of vibrant and intricate tableaux.

Staging the play as a piece of interactive promenade theatre poses challenges to the group, as the novelty that this kind of theatre can have for an audience can so often be used as a smokescreen for poor acting and script work. Not so here. James Blake-Butler gives a commanding performance as Woland, at once potent and menacing, and eccentric- his is an almost Wildean devil. Both Jonny Wiles and Iona Purvis as the eponymous lovers, give very adept performances. Purvis’s transformation from grief stricken lover to supernatural witch at the devil’s midnight ball is terrific- indeed her new powers of flight provide an opportunity for some very slick and ethereal physical theatre as Margarita glides above the Moscow cityscape.

The group’s attempts at creating an immersive promenade experience are largely successful. The audience is encouraged to move as close as they like to the actors, and to be willing to involve themselves in the performance if called upon to do so. These instances range from anything to holding a spotlight, to waltzing with Woland and his retinue at the ball. Although largely effective- the novel’s complicated web of interrealated locations and temporal realms is conveyed through the use of different performance spaces for new scenes- perhaps the promenade element is a little too contrived. Each time the audience is required to move (and it must be said that it is a fairly large audience) an announcement is made and the cast shepherd the audience to their new pews or space on the floor. I get the feeling that a smaller audience and completely fluid transitions between scenes, without the clumsy herding of spectators, would make for a far more interesting experience, with the audience very much having to take a proactive approach to keeping up with the plot of the play.

‘The Master and Margarita’ is rounded off by its beautiful aesthetic in the church. Unforeseen circumstances seem to have meant that the group could not perform in the churchyard, and so there are problems with acoustics at times, with lines descending into incomprehensible echoes. All things considered, however, this is an extremely original take on a rich and challenging source text, and the group succeed with wit, creativity, and talent.

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