Tag Archives: Bulgakov

“Master and Margarita”

adapted from the novel by Mikhail Bulgakov

at the Barbican Centre, Wednesday 2nd January 2013

I only read Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita for the first time this summer (actually after being gutted at having missed the previous run of the show without knowing it was returning and wanting to see why Complicite would adapt such a text) and raced through it within a few days. Now, I’ll happily admit this isn’t the ideal way to approach such a dense, complex novel, but at the time I was solely concerned with turning the next page to see where we were taken next; I hope to return to it again in the next year or so. Anyway, I digress. What’s so astonishing about Complicite’s version is that it manages to maintain the large bulk of Bulgakov’s epic narrative without sacrificing any of his startling philosophical discussions and wide-ranging themes. It’s a production which does pretty much everything I want a piece of theatre to do.

There’s no point in me going into the narrative here because to do so would be a waste of time and energy considering there are plenty of brilliant synopses on the internet (a particularly good one is on the show’s website: http://www.manuscriptsdontburn.org/799/). I also won’t attempt to dissect or consider in any great detail what Bulgakov himself has managed to achieve in his novel and the astonishingly complex themes he wades through, as I have neither the intelligence nor the time to do so (and there is a wealth of wonderful criticism on the novel anyway). Instead, this piece will consider the ways in which Simon McBurney and his team have transposed the themes present in the original into a theatrical setting.

The most striking visual aspect of the production involves perhaps the best use of projections I’ve seen in a piece of theatre (it’ll soon become an awards category, mark my words). The vast floor and back wall of the Barbican stage can covered completely by sprawling images showing snowstorms or a satellite image of Moscow, but just as frequently the projections are used subtly to mark room layouts and even as a form of lighting. Added to this is the innovation of using an overhead camera to project certain scenes onto the back wall, so that the image of Margarita falling from her window, for example, becomes a theatrical reality played out virtually. We are also allowed multiple perspectives, as those of us sat higher up in the theatre are able to see both floor and wall, allowing us to see both reality and fiction played out simultaneously. Thus Bulgakov’s questioning of what makes a story true is played out in front of our eyes.

Similarly, the dichotomies which Bulgakov is perpetually presenting in his novel (faith vs atheism, sanity vs insanity etc) get aestheticised through a split-screen effect, whereby events ostensibly occurring within the same space are placed on either side of the stage, for example during the multiple decapitations during the show or when a scene is moved across the stage to show the differing perspectives of two different characters.

At one point, the joke is made that at some point in the future, we will have access to hoards of information “at the push of a button”, something which is heightened by the grids and bright white lines of Finn Ross’ video design (aided by Luke Halls’ animation). The past, present and future become intermingled so that even when we are witnessing the sentencing of Jesus, images and ideas from our own future are unavoidable. By contrasting these hi-res images with Es Devlin’s – for want of a better word – soviet set design, the two worlds are throughout fighting against one another and trying to gain a foothold within our consciousness.

As the space changes and boundaries are shifted by the blueprint projected onto the stage, so too does the way in which people move from one area to another. Some scenes are static, such as the Pilate/Jesus ones, taking place on a thin diagonal and focussing on no more than the text. Elsewhere, the stage is chaotic, as we are transported to the busy streets of Moscow, or eerily sparse  as when Margarita lays naked in the middle of the floor (another thing about this production is that the striking images of the book are beautifully recreated on stage). So, as the context and paradigms shift as characters enter and exit certain stages of awareness, our minds turn inwards, considering the way in which we may change when in different social spheres.

The darkly absurdist humour of Bulgakov’s original is also given just enough stage time, and is embodied brilliantly by a group of actors who take on a multitude of roles. There is a self-awareness, a theatricality, imbued in all of them, as they both maintain truth and exist wholly within the world around them. Paul Rhys as both Woland (i.e. ‘Satan’) and the Master (a tortured writer) flits easily between the two (it only dawned on me halfway through the first half that this was the case). His frantic energy as the Master is subverted wholly into a dry, humourless power as Woland. His opposite in most ways is Richard Katz’s Ivan Nikolayich. He is the beating, human heart of the piece and represents us on stage; baffled, exhausted, amazed.

What Simon McBurney’s production does particularly well is to be both modern and postmodern simultaneously, capturing the Zeitgeist of both the time of initial publishing and today. Some of the images and ideas presented by Bulgakov are somewhat archaic to our twenty-first century eyes and ears, but they are presented in such a way that allows them to be questioned, critiqued and reconsidered. Master and Margarita is a production which worms its way into your deep subconscious, finding its way into your dreams and imprinting itself on the more secluded parts of your brain. It’s capricious, it’s confusing, it’s complex. But my god it’s beautiful.


“Collaborators” by John Hodge

at the Cottesloe Theatre, Tuesday 20th March 2012

“What if…” pieces are always intriguing, offering an alternative view of history. It’s extraordinarily tempting to imagine Shakespeare and Dickens conversing in a pub, or Newton being educated by Einstein. We love to imagine these conversations, and consider how history would be different if these conversations were possible. In Collaborators, John Hodge asks “What if Josef Stalin helped Mikhail Bulgakov to write plays and in return Bulgakov helped him with affairs of state?”  The result is a witty, intelligent play which, even though it tries a little too hard to appeal to our hearts, asks some big questions.

After the success of The White Guard, the playwright and novelist Mikhail Bulgakov is asked (read: forced) to write a play for Stalin’s sixtieth birthday (he is a huge fan of the aforementioned play, having seen it fifteen times). Naturally, the writer wants to create an artistically sound piece of theatre, whilst his paymasters wish him to make something which praises Vozhd in all his glory. After a week struggling to create anything of worth, he is summoned by Uncle Joe himself, with whom he collaborates so both of them are able to get their work done. Along the way, Stalin realises the difficulties in writing and structuring a play, whilst Bulgakov becomes implicit in some of the atrocities of the Soviet regime.

It’s not hard to see what Hodge thinks of the art question here: it is impossible to create good art if one is given preconditions – i.e., no good art can be created under censorship. I think most of us can agree on that: the hilariously awful excerpts from “Young Stalin” prove this. The interesting debate, however, is about Bulgakov’s position. After being relinquished of the shame of writing an awful play, he begins to defend decisions about grain in the provinces which are costing lives. His initial hatred of his leader becomes far less clear-cut, and we are shown that those in power don’t have the luxury of ideology that many of us do: they have to balance arguments before coming to a conclusion. In this respect, Hodge is supremely successful, and the two-handed scenes between Stalin and Bulgakov are without doubt the most superior.

Where the play falls flat, slightly, is in Hodge’s portrayal of Bulgakov’s home life. The writer and his wife, Yelena, live with a whole host of other bohemians, who are somewhat stock and serve only the purpose of allowing an emotional outlet for Bulgakov. They seem superfluous, for this exact dilemma could just as easily be communicated to his wife alone. The core argument – that of the difficulties of ideology in art – is present in the one-on-one scenes, and we gain very little from the presence of other characters in the Bulgakov household.

Nicholas Hytner’s production is beautifully crafted, taking images and techniques from Communist propaganda. George Fenton & Paul Ardiiti’s music and sound are used in an almost cartoon-style way, and Jon Clark’s lighting acts as a frame around certain scenes. The tone of Hytner’s direction shifts from grimy socialist realism to stylised choreography, and is set beautifully on Bob Crowley’s red and black scenic design, looking like its been lifted straight off of a Soviet poster, complete with jagged lines and uneven floor.

A solid ensemble is led by three superb actors. Mark Addy’s Vladimir, the chief of police, lies on the borderline of ridiculous, but manages to retain a humanity which allows us to understand how difficult he finds his job. Simon Russell Beale’s portrays Stalin as an idiotic, frail but supremely passionate man who flips at an instant. There is something supremely menacing about his quietness, and the Somerset accent only adds to the confusion we feel towards him. Alex Jennings completes the trio as Bulgakov, rarely leaving the stage and providing the narrative drive and voicing the audience’s own internal debate.

It does feel at times like Collaborators is trying to tackle a few too many questions without ever fully exploring any of them, but what Hodge shows us is a world in which it is impossible to say what you feel openly. Although it is entirely fiction, the meetings between Stalin and Bulgakov feel extraordinarily real, and we are forced to ask ourselves whether the old maxim suggesting that artists would be better at politics than politicians is true after all.

“The White Guard” by Mikhail Bulgakov

at the Lyttelton Theatre, Sunday 11th April 2010

Although “a prelude to another great historical story”, Andrew Upton’s new version of Bulgakov’s “The White Guard” stands completely in its own right as a tale worth telling. Set in pre-Soviet Russia, the play shows the struggles of a family group fighting under the White Guard against nationalists and communists in the Ukraine, the inhabitants of which seem to be overwhelmingly in favour of a new beginning under Bolshevism.  Oddly enough, it holds particular resonance being performed in the weeks leading up to a general election, for the apathetic public sentiment expressed in Britain 2010 could not be further from the full-scale revolution occurring in Russia in 1918.

The Turbins are clearly fighting a lost cause against the Reds, but do so in the name of honour. Bulgakov does not disclose who he believes to be right or wrong, but does commend those who stand to defend their name and what they believe to be right. Even though the author was forced by Stalin’s censors to make his characters to change allegiance to the Bolsheviks at the end of the play, it seems that those who stop fighting are praised, for it means that the list of dead does not need to grow. At a pivotal moment in the play, when Daniel Flynn’s Alexei looses his life after demanding the White Guard be disbanded, it is made clear that this is one too many dead and that it is not worth fighting further if a cause is lost.

Howard Davies’ superb direction, whilst exposing the horrors of war, does at the same time show the farce of any such conflict. Much of the play is darkly comic and shows those fighting to be incompetent. Captain Viktor Myshlaevsky and Lieutenant Leonid Shervinsky, played expertly by Paul Higgins and Conleth Hill respectively, are shown to be suitably barbaric in times of trouble, but at the same time can be compassionate. The only redeemable male character in the narrative is Larion Larionovich Surzhansky, played by Pip Carter, who although cowardly, does not wish to fight, and instead uses words as his weapon.

Justine Mitchell as Elena Turbin, the only woman in the play, delivers the stand out performance of the evening. Elena is a woman living in a man’s world, but it is she who is forced to make the toughest decisions and face the most difficult hardships. It is her journey that we care most about and the human aspect of this narrative which most engages the audience.

The design of the production, however, is the most cause for celebration. Bunny Christie’s set, Neil Austen’s lighting and Christopher Shutt’s sound design transport us from the Turbin’s apartment to the vast, imposing palaces at Kiev and the cramped quarters of the frontline effortlessly. The comfortable spaciousness of the flat contrasts greatly with the brutality of using a school gymnasium as army offices.

Throughout the play we are reminded that there is no telling what may lie ahead. It is out duty, however to look to the past. In what we are constantly told by the media are ‘tough times’, we need to look back in order to put our current situation into perspective and make a reasoned choice as to how to act in the future. As Leonid observes, “people are so busy fussing about tomorrow that they forget about yesterday”. And yes, Cameron, I’m looking at you.