Chichester Festival Theatre, W Sussex
Opened 29 July, 2004

Mikhail Bulgakovís posthumously published novel is a great, sprawling, freakish beast, with philosophy and satire waltzing implausibly together.  The Devil visits 1930s Moscow disguised as a conjuror. A novelist and his lover fear a Stalinist purge. And Pontius Pilate muses about an odd Jewish bloke.  Itís utterly unstageable. So naturally, this is the second of three adaptations that can be seen before summerís out.

Edward Kemp has radically rearranged the scenes and storylines of the book, to give them a palpably more linear flow. In an inspired dramatic decision, he also turns the novel-within-the-novel into a play-within-the-play.  Weíre not quite sure whatís going on at first, as we see Jesus hauled up for sentence before an irritated Pilate.  Then Jesus breaks out of character: ah, itís a play rehearsal. Now we get it.

We see the beginnings of the Master dramatistís persecution by the state, and also of his affair with Margarita. Itís all in order, where the book drops us into the middle of a mad whirl.  There are numerous fine performances, smart staging and clever illusions by director Steven Pimlott, and even one or two self-parodic theatrical gags.  ďThis whole play makes total sense to me,Ē remarks a giant cat at one point.

The trouble is that some of the bookís madness now gets lost along the way.  All kinds of incredible events still occur. But whether in Moscow, in an asylum or at Satanís annual ball, the dialogue begins to settle into a heightened, melodramatic register.  Itís understandable to seek a unifying tone for the whole piece. Itís just that this particular tone is a little too easy to grow tired of listening to.

The adaptation currently on show at Greenwich captures the atmosphere of the novel but loses much of its strange coherence. Here, itís vice-versa.  We know exactly whatís going on, in several places at once Ė which is a small miracle of discipline in itself.  However, when married to such a declamatory style of dialogue, the outlandish events become flatter and more stilted. An honourable near-miss.

Written for Teletext.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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