PROMPT CORNER 16-17/2004:
The Master And Margarita / The Master And Margarita / The Master And Margarita / The Night Season / Singin' In The Rain
Various venues
July/August, 2004

I’m still on the long, hard road back to lucidity after nearly four weeks and over 100 shows in Edinburgh, so forgive me if I wimp out and limit myself to a single page here this issue.  (Our Edinburgh supplement will be published, under separate cover but as a free addition, just as soon as we’ve sorted through the myriad reviews and figured out how many we can accommodate.)

Margarita time

As Ian Herbert indicates, a number of reviewers have commented upon there being two stage adaptations this summer of Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel The Master And Margarita, but only Fiona Mountford and John Thaxter noticed that there have actually been three, and I suspect that only Theatre Record (preen, preen) has seen them all. I agree with Ian H. about the versatility and verve of Blanche McIntyre’s production at Greenwich Playhouse in July, but it has to be said that if I hadn’t read the novel I would have often been at a loss to follow the energetic but opaque happenings onstage.

Mind you, I regret to say that exactly the same is true of David Rudkin’s adaptation for the National Youth Theatre at the Lyric Hammersmith, and his version runs nearly three hours compared to McIntyre’s two.  I’d been particularly looking forward to the Rudkin version; I’ve lamented here on a previous occasion the unfashionableness of such a writer, of whom the description “difficult” becomes a term of approbation.  Alas, in this instance he takes the opposite of his usual tack: instead of tapping into archetypes of historical continuity, he goes for topical updates.  In so doing, he not only fumbles the process on his own terms, but robs himself of many opportunities to bring a necessary focus to Bulgakov’s sprawling, hither-and-yon narrative.  It’s easy to see how current anti-terrorist legislative hysteria can be compared to Stalinist oppression, but not especially enlightening in this context.  And when he replaces the honorific “Comrade” with “Stakeholder”, a term briefly floated and then abandoned by Blairite Labour in the mid-1990s, he suggests either that some form of this adaptation has been languishing in a drawer for several years or that his grasp of contemporaneity is somewhat shaky.  Director John Hoggarth marshals his three-dozen-strong cast well, but without the foundation of a disciplined script he’s fighting a rearguard action and one doomed to failure.


Consequently, I’ve come to re-evaluate Edward Kemp’s adaptation for Steven Pimlott’s Chichester production.  When it opened, I wrote a review (for ITV Teletext, therefore not reprinted here) saying that McIntyre’s Greenwich adaptation caught the atmosphere of the novel but lost much of its strange coherence, whereas with Kemp it was vice-versa.  I now think that was overly dismissive.  I still find it odd that the dialogue adapted from such an often surreal novel should settle into the heightened, melodramatic, even declamatory register that Kemp increasingly finds himself using; however, Rudkin falls into the same trap.  And I belatedly appreciate the genuine exuberance which most of my colleagues discerned at the time; there’s a lot more than contrivance to the various bits of wacky staging that Pimlott deploys.

To achieve all this and also find a firm narrative through-line is worth more praise than I gave it first time around.  Both Kemp and Rudkin turn the Master from a novelist into a playwright, but Kemp takes matters further by plunging us straight into a scene in which Jesus is under interrogation by Pilate... until “Jesus” breaks away and launches a question to the back of the theatre, at which point it becomes apparent that we’re watching a rehearsal of a play within the play.  At last I can say, “This play makes total sense to me”, echoing the casual remark of the giant cat Behemoth.

Messy hearts

At the National, Rebecca Lenkiewicz offers a similar kind of endearing sprawl in her second play The Night Season.  With its combination of Irish family drama, self-conscious Shakespearean quotations, explicit allusions to WB Yeats and implicit ones to Chekhov (come on: the youngest of the three sisters keeps yearning to go to Moscow, literally!), one’s not entirely sure that Lenkiewicz ever became firmly resolved on what it was that she’d wanted to write.  Nevertheless, if the “what” doesn’t coalesce, the “how” is a thing of beauty.  Plymouth-born Lenkiewicz captures both Irish cadence patterns and my homeland’s delicious, often self-deprecating sardonicism.  A clutch of top-notch performances include the obvious candidates Annette Crosbie and David Bradley, Susan Lynch cast boldly and astutely against type as a buttoned-up librarian, and Lloyd Hutchinson who after years of unobtrusive excellence really deserves to be better known than he is.  Director Lucy Bailey is rather too disposed towards unnecessary scene-changing business (a fault which I, in the minority, thought crippled her stage version of Tennessee Williams’ Baby Doll some five years ago), but she handles the play’s ordinary, messy hearts and loose-end lives deftly and sensitively.

Two adverbs which cannot, I’m afraid, be applied to Paul Kerryson’s staging of Singin’ In The Rain.  The other Ian is warm about this production; I disagree.  This was the show at which I realised I’d had the same reservation about a number of Kerryson musicals, and that it might be a trait. It is this: he loves putting oomph into such shows, but he can ignore little details in a way that lets them mount up until they threaten the whole.  In this case, these details include not only misfortunes like a misbehaving rain system and trainspotterish minutiae such as anachronistic-looking film clips, but serious faults such as (again) an excess of scene changes (the first half here ran almost as long as the entire movie), a tendency to overplay and blunt the comedy, and a lead in Adam Cooper who can stand comparison with Gene Kelly as a dancer but not as an actor or singer.  It ends up trying too hard in some areas and not nearly hard enough in others.

Written for Theatre Record.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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