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“Master and Margarita” by Mikhail Bulgakov, stage adaptation by Victor Sobchak, Art-Vic (Anglo-Russian Theatre), at Cockpit Theatre, London. ****

November 16, 2018

 

The production of “Master and Margarita” staged by Viktor Sobchak begins with Pontius Pilate (Igor Woods) questioning Yeshua, who seems quiet and almost incoherent, as we can barely see his face because of the huge wig the actor is wearing. When he finally takes it off, it turns out that this is just a rehearsal in which Master (Vadim Reno Nicolaou) decides to take part as Yesua, because the actual actor rehearsing the part hasn't turned up, so the audience finds itself witnessing one performance inside the other.

 

This clever beginning of the play by Victor Sobchak straightaway shows us the reference to Bulgakov’s struggle to get his plays staged at the Moscow Art Theatre and connects the writer with his alter ego - Master. Sobchak changes the narrative of the novel and often uses the text from earlier versions of Bulgakov's masterpiece or adds his own text in order to create the meanings that he as director desires. It is interesting to follow the logic not of Bulgakov’s novel but of the director, who creates a reality in which the author of “Master and Margarita” and Master become one, Master and his characters mingle and communicate with each other and finally it is Ivan Bezdomniy (Andrey Rogozin) who at the end becomes Bulgakov and finishes the narration. The director creates a multilayer theatrical reality in which all these transformations become possible.

 

The performance is full of Sobchak’s witty ideas and the action is dynamic and swift. The director manages to fit in the short production most of the main lines and scenes from the novel, supporting the action with dramatic lighting, which at times seems unnecessarily too red, and with repeated music themes.

 

As often with Sobchak's productions, the main problem is uneven acting, when some of the roles are well-rehearsed and others require more work. Some of the characters that are male in the novel, in this production are performed by females. This is probably purely due to the director's willingness to give roles to his numerous actresses, but nevertheless it works most of the time. Rimsky (Ina Kim) and Varenukha (Alana Kazarova) respond with purely female immediacy to the tricks of Wolland's entourage. Vera Horton performs Gella with freedom and ease and creates one of the most convincing characters in the production.

 

Caiaphas is performed by Liza Karenina, and her femininity actually  adds some dramatic tension to her confrontation with Pontius Pilate regarding Yeshua. In spite of the prop beard we can still see a woman asking for his death and this reminds us of Salome asking for the head of John the Baptist... Karenina also performs Natasha, the servant of Margarita (Tatiana Zapolnova), and in a way she outshines her mistress by the truthfulness of her desire for love and a life different from  the one she leads.

 

Vadim Reno Nicolaou’s Master resembles young Bulgakov, but he seems to remain a kind of illustration of the great writer. We can sense more drama and transformation in Andrey Rogozin's Ivan, who is at first under the full influence of “propaganda” and his charismatic yet deluded mentor Berlioz (Bijan Badi), but who gradually changes throughout the performance.

 

The main hero of Master's novel, Pontius Pilate, often appears to his creator in the red infernal light. He sits down on his bed and communicates directly with him as if with Yeshua, to whom he longs so much to talk. However, even Pontius Pilate in this production seems to be not as poignant as Wolland performed by Dainius Valutis.

 

This role is really the finest hour for this versatile actor, as the figure of Wolland becomes central in Sobchak's production. As the Russians say, “the retinue performs the king”. In this performance the opposite occurs: the king performs his own retinue. In Dainius Valutis’ performance of Wolland we can see the characters from Bulgakov's novel accompanying him. One moment he is as charming and swift as Behemoth (Al Dorado), the next moment he is mockingly serious just like Fagot (Alvaro Nunez), at times he is absorbed in his philosophical thoughts while observing the audience, but in all these multiple facets he remains human. There is nothing of the infernal in this prince of darkness and we can sense how lonely and longing for love he is when he struggles to let his queen Margarita go. Dainius Valutis performs Wolland as a suffering being which gives Bulgakov's novel a very humane meaning.