Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita Inspires Stage Adaptations
Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita is considered a classic example of Soviet satire, which ironically attacks the repression and propaganda of Stalin’s Russia. This compelling work forms the centrepiece of two unique stage productions: John Hodge’s Collaborators at the National Theatre and Simon McBurney’s The Master and Margarita at the Barbican.
This is where John Hodge’s Collaborators leaves historic fact and starts creating surrealist fantasy. It seeks to dramatize the conflict between Bulgakov and Stalin as a battle between a man and a monster, in which Bulgakov is ultimately doomed to crumble against the terrible power of Stalin. In this satirical telling Bulgakov becomes a Faustian artist drawn by frustration and ego into a pact with the devil. As the play continues Bulgakov suddenly finds himself switching roles with the monster, with Stalin writing the propagandistic play and Bulgakov with the odious task of commanding KGB assassinations. Although darkly witty in places and led by two fantastic performances by Alex Jennings, who plays Bulgakov, and Simon Russell Beale, who plays Stalin, John Hodge’s attempts to turn a staunchly critical writer of Stalin into a collaborator are curious, given what is now known about Bulgakov’s career.
Collaborators is based on the historical facts and events surrounding Bulgakov in 1930’s Russia. During this time government censorship had ruined his career through as both the publication of his work and the production of his plays had been banned. As a desperate measure Bulgakov sent a personal letter to Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Government, exasperatingly requesting that they either allow him to work as a writer in his homeland or allow him to leave and find artistic satisfaction elsewhere. Stalin replied to him personally, via telephone, and asked him a vital question; do you really desire to leave the Soviet Union? Bulgakov, realising that his fate could be sealed with his next few utterances, replied that a Russian writer cannot live outside of his homeland. Satisfied with this response Stalin granted him permission to re-join the theatre.
Contrastingly Simon McBurney’s production of The Master and the Margarita offers a tempestuous insight into Bulgakov’s mental processes as he wrote under the Stalinist regime, as well as dramatizing some of the novel itself. The streets of Moscow are transformed into a fantastical horror show by production designers Es Devlin and Luke Halls. The play’s intricately plotted narrative and sudden shifts of tone and style mirror the complex and multifaceted layers of the book in which narratives intertwine and a carnivalesque reversal of norms takes hold. McBurney’s main focus for his rendition of The Master and Margarita is the redemptive power of love, which the characters find in both the figure of Margarita and Christ.
Seeking to challenge the notion of lead narration, McBurney decided to have the two male leads, the stricken writer Master and the satanic Woland played by the same actor, Paul Rhys. Rhys performs like a man possessed; displaying both sides of Bulgakov’s tormented protagonists. Sinéad Matthews's Margarita is the saviour of Rhys’ Master, and her performance is absorbing, as well as fearless as she spends most of the second half naked.
The Master and Margarita ran for several months at London’s Barbican in early 2012 and will subsequently be touring in Austria, Holland, Spain and France subsequently. Collaborators finished its run at the National Theatre in London in May 2012.
By Loren Field.