“A Hell of a show”
It was with a certain amount of trepidation when I met The Sleepless Theatre Company on the Royal Mile and discussed with the crew their production of The Master and Margarita. How on earth are they going to do it?, I thought.
Action opens with the procurator of Judea, Pontius Pilate, in court session over an apparently worthless vagrant, Yeshua Ha Nostri. The procurator is ill and it would be so simple to dismiss this tramp with two words: “Hang him.” Nineteen hundred years later, it is a hot May night in Moscow and the committee members of the exclusive Communist Party writers’ guild, are sweltering in a small meeting room, waiting for the Chair, Mikhail Berlioz, to arrive. He is late. None of them can know that dark powers have already entered the city.
For Russians, The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov is the Soviet Union’s most famous novel. It is a wide-ranging satirical fantasy and the changes in location (across Moscow and Jerusalem), space and time are a daunting challenge for any adaptation. In this interpretation Sleepless Theatre does well at capturing those changes, using the magnificent setting of the St.Cuthbert’s Church to great effect. Like the cast, the audience too are expected to be mobile, following the action around the hall and even being participants if the scene demands. I found the flight of Margarita (Iona Purvis) over the rooftops of Moscow particularly effective: Purvis is obviously dance-trained and her graceful physical acting really added to the dreamlike quality. Against my expectations, the company’s low-tech approach often overcomes the staging challenges inherent in the novel and they should be highly commended for this.
The central relationship between Margarita and The Master (Jonny Wiles) is wonderful: both actors touchingly portraying the sacrifices each make for the other in the cause of their mutual love and Woland (James Blake-Butler) is suitably all-powerful and sinister. Gwenno Jones captures the tortured soul of Frieda perfectly; though as Yeshua, to me, Jones fails to show the calm and almost playful wit possessed by the character, even in the face of death. Coupled with Pilate (Georgia Figgis) lacking a real menacing streak, the opening scene rings slightly less true than the others, which are on the whole excellently delivered.
Narration is a large part of this production, with actors taking this in turn, and in the first scene I did have some concerns about the delivery (and, indeed the existence of) some crucial lines. During the interrogation Pilate lays too much emphasis on a certain word than is appropriate and leads the witness. The script sees the narrator point this out, rather than it being obvious from the acting, and it is a shame that writer Alexander Hartley keeps to narration here, rather than letting the acting speak for itself. Apart from this minor blip, the rest of the narration remains faithful to the book, and dedication to original text should otherwise be praised.
The Master & Margarita is a massive challenge for any company to take on, and for the most part Sleepless Theatre Company do a really good job: the central themes of the book come shining through. If you know the book, see Master & Margarita for the joy of seeing it live. If you have never read the book, go see. You are in for one hell of a show.
Reviewer: Martin Veart (Seen 16th August)