What could possibly attract an Australian director to a story about the visit of Satan to a godless Moscow in the 1930s? And how is this relevant to audiences of a theatre in sunny Surry Hills nearly a century later?
Eamon Flack, who adapted the novel for the stage, and directed it, says, “I read [The Master and Margarita] over twenty years ago and fell head over heels in love with the magic realism, the love story, the joy, the hilarity, the playfulness, the theatricality. I’ve never read anything like it. It’s one of the great glories of human creativity.
He continues: “We don’t live under a violent authoritarian regime but we do still live with ubiquitous ideology. We live in a kind of pandemic of ideas and ideologies, and they’re all trying to take over our brains. The Master and Margarita is about freeing yourself from the ideas that have infected you. It’s about rediscovering the joy of a free imagination and a free mind.”
In the novel, Woland and his entourage, including a huge cat called Behemoth, Azazello, an ancient demon, and Korovyev, a thoroughly nasty character, wreak havoc in a Moscow where the elites protect their interests, and the mediocrities theirs, while the Master, a writer, and Margarita, his saviour, try to survive.
A parallel story is set in ancient Judea, where Pontius Pilate condemns Christ to death, and then must spend eternity regretting his actions.
As Nicholas Rothwell wrote in 2013: “The Master and Margarita … catches the mood of its time. It reflects the fears and doubts spawned by dictatorship. It offers up a wild, bitter humour. It foretells the later 20th century’s embrace of magical realism.”
I asked Eamon Flack about the difficulties he had in trying to present Bulgakov’s vision for Australian audiences.
“To begin with, the book is full of things that are almost impossible to stage – a grand ball, a flying witch, a giant talking cat. The job of finding playful theatrical solutions to staging those things was really fun. But we also had to give the audience a bit of information about life under Stalin – and in the end we just added that into the show!”
What Flack added was a surprise Q and A featuring the acclaimed poet Anna Akhmatova, Nadezda Mandelstam, wife of famous poet Osip Mandelstam, and short story writer Isaac Babel, just to provide some of the context of Stalin’s “terrors”.
Bulgakov begged Stalin to let him go, but Stalin kept him under his thumb. Bulgakov died in 1940 in miserable circumstances while still writing his masterwork, and were it not for his wife Yelena, we would not be reading his novel today and Flack would not be adapting it for the stage.
It is a brilliant adaptation, and Flack’s direction of this very fine cast leant a light Aussie touch to what is otherwise an horrendous satire. In Russia, its status is equivalent to “the Scottish play”.
Congratulations Belvoir! A triumph of theatrical imagination and execution.