From the scene in the Royal Consumer Heritage Theatre. The deluded 'stakeholders' dance in the ravishing new clothes that only they themselves can see. Orchestrating the scene, ‘professor' Woland (Tom Allen) in armchair, with henchmen Signor Fagotto (Matt Smith) and Behemoth the Cat (Dean Nolan).
No wonder, in Stalin's Moscow, the author of this crazy sane masterpiece dreaded for his life. Bulgakov is a defining heretic of the 20th century, and The Master and Margarita is his defining, most transgressive work. Its manuscript-in-progress he too, like his own 'Master', endeavoured to destroy, in terror of the deadly hostility that already before its publication it had begun to arouse. But like his Master he too was to discover that 'books don't burn' . The book itself, albeit unfinished, and published in several varying editorial versions, now enjoys iconic status. There are even theme-tours in Moscow now, featuring various putative locations from its narrative. I felt it an honour to be called upon to make theatre of this marvellous work, for the leading youth ensemble in the world.
But the adaptor's responsibility, though weighty, is not simply a literary concern. Stalin's Moscow, one glibly says. One should pause, then, to think how one need change nothing of it, but merely translate the name of a street or a government department into our own cultural terms, search out an equivalent word or term in our own lexicon of political cant, update the communications and surveillance technology, parallel Soviet Russia's proverbial paranoia with revulsions and terrors of our own - and the totalitarian ethos of the Stalinshchina stands revealed in its moral essence as present and active in our world too. These were not re-tunings that I capriciously imposed upon the original, they sounded from it as I read. Hear it speaking with our tongue, and Bulgakov's nightmare city is instantly and seamlessly a comic-horrific panorama of our own Here and Now. It's to be regretted that our critics failed (or declined) to engage with this aspect of my adaptation; not for the first time, were they content in their own complacency simply to dismiss me as wrong. I would indeed have been wrong, had I myself been content - simply to 'adapt' this fierce work inertly as a Modern Classic 'set' in an alien world of 70 years ago. And I would do poor service to the young company too, were I to offer them a performance text with no connection to their own observation and experience, and require of them to create a world onstage unrecognizable and meaningless to them and with no connection to their own. I wasn't going to patronize them either, by diluting the adult moral sophistication of the piece, or softening its knotty dialectic of scepticism, sarcasm and the metaphysical. Unlike the critics, the company did rise to the occasion. They were, to be sure, not always equal to some of the technical and vocal demands, but that is no discredit in so large a company of mainly unpractised performers. What stands out in my memory of this amazing production is their total self-commitment, professional through and through, and their ensemble discipline, not least in how they coped with the physical demands of the set, a design triumph, a shifting dreamscape of massive ziggurat-like blocks that joined, formed, parted and reformed anew as though by magic, but in brutal reality were being rolled, slid and trundled by the company themselves, meticulously orchestrated in a mass precision (and all invisible) as of Babylonian slaves.