Edward Kemp’s reworking of Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita not only retains all of the original’s political satire and magic but adds a dose of laugh-out-loud dark humour to the mix.
The play tells the story of The Master (Joe Strickland), a disgraced playwright, who falls in love with the fiery and beautiful Margarita (Almaz Rish). The Master lives a quiet life in a basement somewhere in Soviet Russia until his new play centred on Pontius Pilate (Ben Dillon) comes under fire for its controversial message. Aggrieved by mounting criticism, the Master destroys his manuscript, much to his lover’s dismay. Events soon take a darker turn as the devil, under the alias Professor Woland (Sam Peake), and his peculiar entourage arrive in Russia, bringing murder and bewitching mayhem in their wake.
The self-aware style of NNT’s The Master and Margarita is the work of innovative direction that doesn’t go unnoticed but at times weakens the intensity of performance. The Master’s intrusive direction – such as interrupting performances of his play to offer sporadic critique – was unfortunately somewhat disorientating. This was especially true for those unfamiliar with Bulgakov’s text; at times the dual storylines were confusingly overlapped, and character introductions were unclear. However, this lack of clarity can be partially attributed to the complexity of the novel itself and certainly does not detract from the mesmerising quality of Kemp’s adaptation. Indeed, the audience participation facilitated by the semi self-aware style of The Master and Margarita was often engaging, and kept the audience alert and laughing.
This initial pitfall was overshadowed by the undiluted richness of the performances and character development; no character is one dimensional or underplayed. The Master and Margarita’s love story was a pronounced and desperate affair, full of genuine passion. Likewise, Ivan (Emma Summerton) undergoes an expert transition from devoted and bumbling to wildly deranged after witnessing Berlioz’s (Jeremy Dunn) murder. This richness of performance was optimised by the equal parts side-splittingly funny and darkly unnerving performances of the devil (Sam Peake) and his delightfully weird gang of followers.
The scene in which Berlioz’s death is prophesized was a stand-out theatrical triumph. Peake’s stage presence is consistently captivating; the costume design here should also be highly commended and adds to the devil’s attention-grabbing nature. Not only does Peake deliver his performance with the anarchic rhetoric of Bulgakov’s devil but he demands the audience’s full, unswerving attention through his quick wit – his ‘German accent’ was hilarious – and ego-centric command of the stage. Summerton and Dunn’s performances were equally as brilliant, the pair’s flagrant insistences that the devil was a mere fancy, left the audience holding in breath and Ivan’s (Summerton) fearful reaction to his comrade’s murder was both funny and deeply chilling.
The Master and Margarita is undoubtedly a difficult work to do justice to: it demands a political thread, an epic love story and an abundance of supernatural pizzazz. The Nottingham New Theatre’s adaptation manages to satisfy these needs; Kemp’s reimagining of the classic tale, with its quick-witted gags that manage not to lose the essence of the original text, is performed in a manner which is both engaging and stimulating- a feat for which the cast and crew, and in particular the director (Felicity Chilver), deserve diligent praise.
The Master and Margarita runs at The Nottingham New Theatre until Friday 11th December.
For more information and how to buy tickets: http://newtheatre.org.uk/whats-on/
Edited by Georgina Varley