Adapting Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita for the stage is, by any account, an ambitious undertaking. The novel is notorious for the multiplicity of interpretations it allows, simultaneously presenting satire, socio-political critique, philosophical allegory, and theological musing. Beyond this, Bulgakov’s prose is stylistically mercurial as he jumps between 1930s Moscow and Pontius Pilate’s Jerusalem, incorporating elements of magical realism along the way. Despite these obstacles, Magnolia Productions’ interpretation is the latest in a whole host of dramatic adaptations, from Edward Kemp’s 2004 stage rendition to the BBC’s radio play broadcast earlier this year. It seems that there is something irresistible about the dramatic challenge of staging Bulgakov’s book.
Magnolia Productions opted for an outdoor setting, in the gardens of St John’s College. In many ways, this was an inspired choice — the uplit trees created fantastical shapes and shadows across the moonlit lawns (reminding me of the shadow puppets that adorn the Penguin edition of the novel), and the freezing temperatures made the Russian setting that much more believable. In other respects, however, the setting hampered the production. Technical issues aside, the gardens were simply too spacious. Part of Master and Margarita’s power lies in its dense psychological interiority. In the November cold, this sense of claustrophobia, of a nation devouring itself through its own decadence, was lost. I couldn’t help but wonder whether the production was better suited to a venue like the Burton Taylor Studio or Keble O’Reilly, or even a closed courtyard space in one of the smaller colleges. Splitting Moscow and Jerusalem into two physically separate places did help to clarify the dual setting in some ways, but meant that focus of attention was lost when moving between the two. The audience were often left not knowing where to look in the passages that required quick transition between them, such as when the Master describes his novel. On a more metaphorical level, the physical separation of Jerusalem rather detracted from Bulgakov’s point that the world of Pontius Pilate is still alive and well in the Russian state.
Although Master and Margarita does have a plot of sorts, to say that it is a love story between Margarita and the Master is about as comprehensive as saying that Slaughterhouse Five is a book about aliens. This is one of the many levels at which the novel operates, and to their credit Magnolia Productions did not try and narrow down the interpretational complexities of the novel. Conversely, Florence Hyde’s script didn’t take as many liberties with the text as were perhaps necessary for a convincing stage rendition. Without the context of Bulgakov’s prose, the dialogue was appropriately kaleidoscopic but ultimately missing the grounding needed to make it a convincing social critique. In remaining so faithful to Bulgakov’s language, this script overlooked the radically different nature of the apparatus available to the novel and the drama. Consequently many of the most effective moments were improvised, particularly Josh Dolphin’s exceptional performance as Azazello. It was at the points where Dolphin and Ali Porteous (as Woland) went off-script to interact with the audience that the satirical nature of Bulgakov’s novel was most convincingly captured.
Magnolia Productions cannot be faulted for their ambition in choosing Master and Margarita as a topic. Reducing Bulgakov’s monumental work down to ninety minutes is a feat in and of itself. And there were some beautifully staged moments, such as when Margarita flew over the heads of the audience to the sounds of Tom Kinsella’s astutely atmospheric score. Nonetheless, I was left unconvinced by the efficacy of their production as a stand-alone dramatic piece. A close familiarity with the novel seemed to be a prerequisite for making any sense of what was happening, and from there draw out the interpretational layers that Bulgakov offers. In terms of both style and content, the adaptation needed to be bolder to make the leap from page to stage convincing. Paradoxically, a less faithful translation might have got closer to the chimerical brilliance of the original text. While this rendition offered moments of genuinely amusing entertainment, it ultimately fell prey to Bulgakov’s web of multiple narratives and styles.