The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov has been one of my favourite books since I read it as as student 20 years ago. It is devilishly zany; it has a very cool Satan character, Woland; it satirises the Soviet system and bureaucracy; it's clever, knowing, self-referential, ahead of its time: all about the artist vs the state, an artist in love, the nature of compassion, and it throws in quite a few bits of delicious knockabout black comedy (oh, and there's a bit about religion too.)
The Theatre Royal, Plymouth were showing a brand new dramatised version of the novel last week performed by the acclaimed theatre company, Complicite. I booked the tickets months ago, eager to see how such an 'out there' book could be brought to the stage.
The director, Simon McBurney, was the first on stage and half-introduced and half-apologised for the show. I felt that he was being self-deprecating when he said that he really found the book puzzling and almost pulled out of the project a few weeks, ahem, months (he corrected himself) ago. We hoped his negativity was pre-show nerves and luvvy language for 'what a lovely show I've created' however, as we left the theatre we hadn't decided if it was a triumph or not.
There was a lot to commend it. The first half got me involved hugely and after nearly two hours, I actually didn't want the interval to take place as I felt it broke down my involvement in the Moscow scenes.
Pontious Pilate forgot a lot of his words in his intial scene and had to be prompted. It wouldn't have been so noticeable but the lighting and sound effects are a major part of this production and a camera was beaming his super-sized visage onto the whole of the back of the stage. I suppose he was torn in his compassion versus anger with Yeshua, and I felt similarly towards Pilate - learn your words, sir, I've paid good dosh for this seat! Ah poor man, he's doing his best, the other part of me thought.
Yeshua was a stark, skinny and very naked man for most of his appearance. I felt this worked well. He was a persecuted prisoner - and we no longer have the need for skimpy torn half-covered nether regions. His vulnerability to us, yet his own ease with (or the irrelevance of) his nakedness was an interesting situation.
Later on, Margarita spent a long time naked on stage and I felt totally different about this. I felt so sorry for her - it seemed to be overly-extended. Considering this was a long (3.5 hour) performance, the naked Margarita scenes at the Moscow Ball and flying over the city were a bit out of balance with the rest of the play. Yes, it was a date with the devil and it had to seem to be dark and threatening, but it was over long and ended up being a bit tedious.
Woland was a terrific devil. His shining teeth, German accent and dark glasses were spot on. It was a bit of a shame that the same actor also played The Master - I wanted to see them both together and didn't want them to be a Jekyll and Hyde type character who had to keep disrobing. The baseball capped sidekick Koroviev was truly menacing, the stuff of nightmares. The cat.....oh, the cat! Where to begin? A wonderfully hip thrusting, mangy skeletal puppet....but a white cat with a green face! It had to be a black cat. Why change that fundamental symbol? And they played the Rolling Stones Gimme Shelter and not Sympathy for the Devil (too obvious? It was inspired by the book, The Master and Margarita).
There were moments of brilliance, grotesqueness and hilarity, but I was not entirely won over. I am disgruntled because these three performances were regarded as a 'run through' prior to the European tour and fortnight at The Barbican. There were no programmes on sale. McBurney even referred to the Saturday night performance as being their 'first night, Friday was the dress rehearsal.' Well, I didn't know that when I bought a ticket!! Is this a case of 'Don't worry it's just Devon'? I'm sure theatre performances do progress and mutate as they go on tour, however I didn't really want to be witness to such an unfinished spectacle when I had paid full price for the privilege.