The Master and Margarita

 

2004

 

The novel by Mikhail Bulgakov, in a dramatization for the National Youth Theatre of Great Britain.

 

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).

 

A totalitarian city. Citizens and traffic under 24-hour surveillance. All phone calls tapped. 'Disappearances'. Draconian emergency powers in the interest of 'security'. The arts and media politically bureaucratized. The language of philosophical and cultural discourse reduced to ideological cant. Stalin's Moscow of the 1930s. And into this nightmare place, one sultry Spring evening toward full moon, comes sauntering the Devil himself, in guise of a performing magician, all charm, intelligence, and dangerous mischief. With his three surrealist henchmen - a shape-shifting trickster 7 foot tall; a vicious red-haired hood with white eyes and a fang; and a walking talking giant black tomcat - he sets about subverting this tyrannized city, bringing its authoritarian monolith crumbling down in farce and anarchy.

Amidst the carnival of disorder, and unaware of it, the unhappy lonely Margarita pines for her lost love - a forgotten great author, much older than herself and whom she knows only as the Master, with whom just a year ago she had enjoyed a brief episode of happiness, sustaining and encouraging him as he wrote his life-consummating work. But that book was to prove his sorrow and undoing: so far from merely rejecting it, the literary authorities had responded with so deadly an hostility to him, an orchestrated critical persecution ideologically so merciless, that in terror and despair he burned his typescript, notes, drafts and all, and walked out of Margarita's life to spare her any danger by association with him. Since when, he has vanished without trace. Margarita has salvaged and preserved what few charred fragments of the work she can, and has begun to reconstruct it from her own memory, but lives only in the hope of her Master's return. Unknown to her, he has signed himself in at a 'therapeutic institute', and on its régime of normalizing drugs is becoming less and less himself. Now, on the anniversary of their first meeting, Margarita receives a sinister invitation, offering her a chance to rescue him; to do so, she must lend herself to the Devil for one night, as hostess at his Ball of the Spring Full Moon. It is to choose her, that this Satan has come to Moscow. For love of her Master, she agrees, smears herself with magical ointment, and becomes a witch, broomstick and all. She flies out over the night city, and in a surreal presage of 9/11 she launches an aerial attack on the Master's detested DramLit House, residential tower-block for the dramatic and literary critical bureaucracy. Intercut meanwhile with all this absurdity and pandemonium have been scenes from the Master's 'lost' work itself - an imaginative reconstruction, sensuously textured and shockingly unorthodox, of the historical realities of the trial and execution of Jesus. But this 'Jesus' is Yeshua, a vagrant solitary and philosopher of the roads; the 'Pilate' is a migraine-stricken imperial official, out of his political and cultural depth. Suddenly this Pilate yields to pressure and, against his better judgment, relinquishes Yeshua to death on the cross. For this night of the Spring full moon is the eve of Passover too. Margarita appears as royal hostess at Satan's Ball, Satan honours his part of the bargain, and in a visionary finale Margarita and her Master are re-united and set free; the insomniac Pilate and crucified Yeshua are reconciled, to continue their dialogue where Pilate so fatefully broke it off. Strange Devil, who (to echo Goethe's Faust as does Bulgakov himself) might will only evil but can work such good.

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