Spanning Jerusalem 2,000 years ago and 1940s Moscow – but staged in a real-life church – it’s hard to imagine a more difficult play to put on, or a more spectacular venue. This ambitious performance of cult classic The Master and Margarita makes a strong case for staging the seemingly unstageable. Puppetry, music and Gregorian chants all add to the magnificent atmosphere.
The play, adapted by Alexander Hartley, follows the plot of the original novel as it flits between the story of Pontius Pilate interrogating a prisoner and the mysterious trail of chaos caused by a “foreign gentleman” in Stalinist Russia. And for “foreign gentleman”, read Satan. At its heart is the touching story of a troubled writer known only as the Master, and his lover Margarita; there’s a gun-toting talking cat in there for good measure too. All of this is performed in the eighteenth-century St Cuthbert’s Church, making for a stunning, if challenging, setting.
This production has done everything the hard way – and succeeded. Crucially, the chemistry between the Master and Margarita creates a genuinely moving performance, despite the eccentric plot. Georgia Figgis’s nuanced and engaging depiction of the tormented Pilate sets up an interesting dynamic with the “vagrant philosopher” Yeshua of Nazareth, and kudos are also due to Sleepless Theatre director Helena Jackson, for overcoming the obvious staging difficulties to bring the play to the Fringe.
That’s not to say that it’s flawless; some aspects are an acquired taste, such as the disregard for the fourth wall and possibly a little too much reliance on physical theatre tropes. On the other hand, despite the challenging acoustics of the church, the setting was absolutely wonderful, and moving around the pews to follow the cast created a thoroughly memorable experience for the audience. A word of warning though: having read the book I found the performance captivating, but uninitiated audience members may find themselves bewildered by the plot.
Despite the odd quibble, by the end I was converted from doubting that the cast would be able to do such an iconic story justice, to feeling that I had witnessed one of the most interesting productions in this year’s Fringe. A must for those who like their theatre at its most adventurous… and who don’t mind joining in with the occasional Satanic dance.