The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, adapted by Lucy Catherine

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The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, adapted by Lucy Catherine.  Dir. Sasha Yevtushenko.  Perf. Anton Lesser, Paul Ready, Anne-Marie Duff.  BBC Radio 3, 15 Mar. 2015.  BBCiPlayer


Written between 1928 and 1940, The Master and Margarita is a novel alternating between two settings: 1930s Moscow, where Satan (Anton Lesser) appears in the guise of “Professor” Woland, accompanied by his sidekicks Koroviev (Carl Prekopp), the black cat Behemoth (Kevin Eldon), and the witch Hella (Rhiannon Needs).  They target the literary Úlite and the trade unions.  The second setting is the Jerusalem of Pontius Pilate (Paul Hilton), and his trial of Yeshua (Edward Hogg).


The Master and Margarita of the title are respectively an embittered author (Paul Ready), who has his novel about Pontius Pilate rejected, and is cast into a pit of despair – so much so that he burns the manuscript and turns his back on his devoted lover Margarita (Anne-Marie Duff).


Told in a variety of styles – blank verse, colloquial exchange, accompanied by music (from Stephen Warbeck) that sums up the gestus of each sequence, Brechtian-style, The Master and Margarita is a hectic satire of just about every aspect of life under the Soviets – the lack of freedom of expression, the philistinism of the nouveaux riches, and the loss of status of the artist, whether they be writers and composers.  It is said that Bulgakov’s novel caused a stir on its first publication, as it was seen to be an attack on the atheism of local artists, denying the existence of Jesus Christ as an historical character.  This might be true, but in Sasha Yevtushenko’s production the religious angle was subordinated to the social criticism; if the world is ruled by Woland and his retinue, who continue to try and control individual thoughts, then what price the future?  Why should anyone bother to cultivate self-expression?


Some parts of this production were extremely funny, with Lesser’s Woland coming across as rather a droll figure, either unwilling or unable to control his charges through direct action.  Yet this capacity rendered him even more dangerous; anyone was likely to be taken in by his honeyed words.  This notion retains its importance today, especially at a time when politicians are competing for our votes by making empty promises at every tick and turn.