I’ve been thinking about collectivism a lot lately; about what happens when we reframe the way we think and work. What if, instead of attempting to step over others, we were to fall in step with our friends instead? Sometimes this is tricky, because capitalism and neoliberalism are very good at teaching us to value ourselves over everyone else, and that achievement looks like being the richest, the prettiest or the smartest person in the room. But what does a world based on caring about each other look like? How can we imagine something so impossibly different?
The Master and Margarita, an epic novel penned by Soviet writer Mikhail Bulgakov under Stalin’s regime – and now a work of collective insanity adapted and directed by Eamon Flack at Belvoir St Theatre – is a lesson in imagining. On paper, the story is ridiculous: the Devil turns up in a park in Moscow, meets a couple of writers, and tells them about a novelist called “the Master” and his great love, Margarita, who becomes a (naked) witch to protect the Master’s manuscript (but also just, because?). The Master’s manuscript is told in pieces between the Devil and his entourage (including a giant black cat and a very thin man wearing pince-nez glasses) as they wreak havoc on Moscow, and draws parallels between the power structures in ancient Galilee and Stalin’s Russia.
So much theatrical beauty and recklessness happens in this show... and Sydney’s stages are better for it.
The Master and Margarita, the novel, was written in secret between 1928 and 1940. It was only published in full in 1967, after it was smuggled to Paris. It’s a complex book, the kind that will leave you exhausted from absorbing all the layers upon layers of detail in it.
Flack adapts and directs this version playing in Surry Hills almost 55 years later, developed and devised in a sort of secrecy (during lockdowns) with the cast over three years. On stage, the story gets even more outrageous. It starts with three actors, a paperback book, and a black stage – then unfurls into a vibrant adventure that echoes Bulgakov’s approach to writing in a thoroughly “Belvoir” way – read: broad Australian accents, appearances in the audience, and a revolving stage that conjures all kinds of magic. Where Flack’s take on Into the Woods struggled to break out of the constraints of its source material, this adaptation revels in the mischief of paying homage and creating a different story along the way.
Instrumental in creating the mischievous feel of this Master and Margarita is its ensemble of actor-devisers. As Woland (the patent black heel-wearing devil herself) Paula Arundell (Harry Potter and The Cursed Child) is terrifying and cheeky in all the right ways. She plays off her hilariously ooky entourage of Gareth Davies (complete with green tracksuit and huge fang), Amber McMahon (in a checked suit and oh-so-fake grey moustache) and Josh Price (complete with black cat eyeliner and leather ears) with palpable delight.
Anna Samson as the almost-never-not-nude witch Margarita is a veritable highlight, playing between tiny gestures of love and wild, reckless destruction with equal amounts of conviction. As the narrator, Matilda Ridgway has some of the most fun, tap-dancing (I won’t tell you where), having her head cut off, and getting lost (as all the best narrators do). Jana Zvedeniuk as Yelena, Marco Chiappi as Pilate, Tom Conroy as Ivan/Matthew Levi and Mark Leonard Winter as the Master all have their moments too – ending up in asylums, being strong Russian women handing out eggs, and evoking the old-world mysticism of the Master’s novel. Chiappi’s shining role is as the ocker-as-anything theatre producer who interrupts the show to advise that Chapter 12 will not be performed, and a Q&A of the author’s long dead wife will take its place. This scene is a clever device that reads like the footnotes in the original text – only much sillier, and unexpectedly profound.
Similarly cunning are Romanie Harper’s objects and costume design, the space and lightning design by Nick Schlieper, magic and illusions design by Adam Mada, and sound design by Stefan Gregory. A giant “W” lit in orange neon, flanked with huge banners of orange fire and ravenous poodle faces, becomes the backdrop for Woland’s magic show, host to a magic clear box of tricks, some stupidly good card tricks, and money that appears in a bag somewhere you don’t expect it to. Margarita flies above a revolving Moscow, surrounded by twinkling tealights and soaring to the sounds of something out of a golden-age-of-Disney witch movie. So much theatrical beauty and recklessness happens in this show – and it’s all thanks to the collective efforts of the team who’ve so earnestly decided to take us on the adventure. Sydney’s stages are better for it.
The theatre is one of those things that forces you to be part of a collective. Together, you sit in the dark. Together, you hallucinate some stories, some worlds and some people (with the help of those showing them to you). And then afterwards, you try to externalise what you saw to explain it to someone else. No one can “win” at the theatre – it is for the writer, the director, the actors, for the audience, for all of us. So what stories should we tell there? Crazy ones, with devils, cats, naked witches, fire, smashing watermelons, matching tracksuits, dancing sparrows, and love. And what does a society built on collectivism look like? I don’t know, but I hope it’s filled with as much chaos and care, and love and fun as this.
The Master and Margarita plays at Belvoir St Theatre until December 17, 2023. Tickets range from $37-$72 and you can snap them up over here.