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The Master and Margarita

Brand new adaptation of Mikhail Bulgakov's 1930s novel in which the Devil comes to Moscow.
OU Catholic Chaplaincy, Sat July 31st & Modern Art Oxford, Mon August 2nd 2010 before heading to Edinburgh Fringe

August 1, 2010
If you’ve read the book then your first thought is probably going to be ‘how on earth are they going to do...’ and then any one of a whole list of the book’s more extravagant scenes.

This is a tale in which Satan (played here with creepy benevolence and a brilliant not-quite-from-anywhere accent by director Max Hoehn) and his horrible talking cat (Matt Monaghan, expertly balancing the silly and the sinister) drive Moscow insane while staging a ball of the damned. Fortunately, though, it’s also the story of an author and his lover, separated by artistic disappointment and state censorship, reunited by the forces of fate. Hoehn and co-writer and performer Raymond Blankenhorn have, understandably, chosen to focus on this rather more conventional end of the narrative.

This makes the more fantastical elements of the play a little weak. Cast and crew have pulled out an impressive range of theatrical tricks on a limited budget, throwing song, dance, physical comedy and surreal make-up effects into the pot, but it doesn’t quite fly. The Devil’s maddening magic show and the ball itself in particular fall short of the epic strangeness they need to work, and there’s a bit of first night clunkiness to the stagecraft: some awkward pauses and sluggish pacing (a rather too Dennis Potter-esque rendition of ‘Dry Bones’ could, in particular, do with losing a verse). It is, however, all done with a physical and emotional commitment that - just, most of the time - lets them get away with it.

This commitment carries over into the quieter and less flashy scenes that make up most of the much more successful second half. Cassie Barraclough and Ollo Clark are full of passion and torment as the titular lovers, while in the ‘story within the story’ - based on the Master’s rejected novel of the life of Pontius Pilate - Jonnie McAloon creates a fascinating Jesus, tortured by the suffering of others to the extent that crucifixion becomes a relief. Both tales benefit from a toning down of the uneven razzle dazzle.

If you haven’t read the book then... well, first off, do, but more importantly I’d advise against using this show as your introduction to it. It’s more of a theatrical companion piece, a series of brave and imaginitive vignettes that didn’t quite manage to encompass Bulgakov’s sprawling allegory but at their best captured its anarchic spirit.
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