Written between 1928 and 1940 but unpublished until the late sixties in an edited form and not until 1973 in a full uncensored version over thirty years after the death of author and playwright Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita is a complicated novel of historical and fantastical elements woven through a satirical condemnation of the then-contemporary Russian political situation, which takes equal swipes at writers, poets, actors, theatrical managers, the conventions of marriage and religion.
That it initially did not find favour with the authorities is no small surprise; that a necessarily streamlined and abbreviated adaptation should now be performed within the high stone walls of one of Edinburgh’s most beautiful churches, St Cuthbert’s at the corner of the West End of Princes Street and Lothian Road, is somewhat more remarkable.
Built in the Italian Renaissance style in 1894 but set in grounds with a history dating back to the 7th century it is a beautiful venue for the performance by the Sleepless Theatre Company, founded more recently in 2011, who do not shy away from the (un)holy blood and flesh of the text in any way in their creative and challenging presentation.
In Moscow in 1930 the mysterious Woland (James Blake-Butler) arrives with his corrupting coterie and his enormous black cat Behemoth (Bethany Evans), and chaos follows in their wake beginning with the tragic death of the poet Berlioz. Predicted only moments before by Woland, the witness Ivan (Rosa Garland) who tries to warn those at the literary club MASSOLIT is scorned and thrown into an insane asylum where he meets the anonymous writer known as the Master (Jonny Wiles).
The Master’s novel, rejected and unpublished, forms a parallel narrative set 2,000 years before in Jerusalem, of Pontius Pilate and the trial of the accused vagrant Yeshua whom some believed to be a prophet and the subsequent actions of Matthew Levi, devoted friend and follower of Yeshua, and the consequences upon Pilate who ordered the crucifixion.
Much of the action is narrated by the Master – this is, after all, his novel – which facilitates understanding, but while the cast all possess clear voices and are able to to project the polished surfaces of the hard stone floor and walls of the magnificent building thwart them, the echoes making it difficult at times to discern the complicated dialogue.
Through no fault of their own the higher registers of the female cast are more adversely affected than the voices of the male cast with Wiles and Tyler Holland (Woland’s dangerous henchman Azazello) most easily discernible, but with the speech so fast and dense even a few lost words can be a great detriment to those struggling to follow the erratic plot which flits between narratives and offers little explanation or elucidation of the bizarre events instigated by the capriciously playful Woland.
Despite the sometimes awkward transitions as the capacity audience are moved around the building by torchlight, an argument could be made that in some ways this conveys the sense of confusion and displacement which Woland casts over Moscow, the anarchy reaching its height during their performance at the theatre where they tempt the refined ladies and gentlemen present, all eager to abase themselves at his instigation.
Sometimes a necessity in order to fit an existing work to the lineup of a company, some characters including those of historical personages are gender swapped; while Georgia Figgis’ Pontius Pilate is unequivocally identified, those unfamiliar with the novel may not immediately grasp that Gwenno Jones’ vagabond Yeshua Ha-Nozri is the person more often referred to in the west as Jesus of Nazareth, and further adding to the ambiguity these and other performers also double in other roles.
The various spaces of the central hall of St Cuthbert’s lending themselves to the tale with remarkable serendipity, the relief sculpture triptych of the eastern apse modelled on Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper serving as a dominating backdrop for Yeshua’s audience with Pilate which occurs only hours after that event, the grandeur of the carved altars, the marble pulpit and the ornate opulence are a fitting representation of both Pilate’s palace and Woland’s Ball of the Full Moon.
It is to that occasion that Woland has invited Margarita (Iona Purvis) to play charades of forgiveness; former lover of and muse to the Master now become a witch, flying down the illuminated river between the pews in an exquisite scene, despite his attempt to now tempt her as he has done the others she will play Woland at his own game with the fate of all in her hands.
Directed by Helena Jackson from Alexander Hartley’s script, The Master and Margarita is a mesmerising theatrical experience, and it is unlikely the production would be so entrancing in any other venue in the capital likely to agree to host it, though those unfamiliar with Bulgakov’s novel might wish to appraise themselves with the basics of the plot in order to gain the maximum enjoyment from this unique spectacle.
The Master and Margarita continues at St Cuthbert’s Church until 29th August