The Master and Margarita

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

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.

'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.

A year later, a sharply contrasted second production followed, at University of Wales' Aberystwyth outpost, in Theatr y Castell, a converted chapel by the castle ruins above the shore – a performance space the best successor I know, in spirit, to the RSC's late lamented original Other Place. Here (dir. David Ian Rabey) a company of 13 female performers – appropriately enough, a coven – in a mix of half-masks and harlequin white-and-black, gave a fuller version of the text at some three and a half hours' playing length, in an austere staging that, as one would expect from a student company, cut with a sharper dialectical edge, and held the space with the Manichaean force of a morality play.