Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel nearly never saw the light of day. He famously burned the original manuscript and then his second manuscript remained unpublished until 26 years after his death, even then in a heavily cut and censored version.
Since then, it has refused to remain hidden, having not only become extremely highly regarded as a novel but having also been adapted many hundreds of times for the stage and screen.
More than a hundred characters and numerous interlocking lines of plot present seemingly endless challenges and opportunities to theatre companies to find ways of staging it. Contemplating doing so in the intimate 150 seat Unity Theatre, though, where the lighting grid is barely 15 feet above the stage could be thought of as either very brave or slightly mad.
All the more reason to rate the result as a tremendous triumph for the Liverpool based Lodestar Theatre Company.
This production is an experience akin to stepping through the canvas of a Magritte painting and finding the cast of Monty Python living there.
A cast of eight actors are assisted in playing their multiple roles with some ingenious and creative use of video projections of themselves (with some parts pre-recorded on a blue-screen and overlaid on the set) and by some imaginative and occasionally hilarious costume changes.
Joseph England, Simon Hedger, Jack Quarton and Hannah Gover (as the feline Behemoth in full-face prosthetic makeup) gave particularly fine performances. I would like to single out others too, but the programme design uses such a stylised typeface that in some cases makes deciphering the cast names a challenge at best, but suffice to say that they all deserve plaudits.
The staging is a masterclass in making the best use of space. How do you create multiple settings on an enclosed stage with no fly-loft without clunky, time consuming shifting of lots of scenery? Digital Artist Adam York Gregory and animator Colin Eccleston have worked with Video Mapping artist Gray Hughes to create a virtual set, which transforms itself elegantly from scene to scene.
How many of the cast or crew would be old enough to remember him I don’t know, but I was oddly reminded of the remarkable Robert Harbin who I recall from the TV in my childhood. Harbin was famous for two things – as a creator and performer of stage illusions (the David Copperfield of his day) and for popularising the art of Origami to the masses.
On the stage was a structure looking as though it may have been an origami exercise; a collection of irregular geometric shapes incorporating a series of entrances and exits and finished entirely in white. It was onto these surfaces that the video-mapped set designs and animations were projected, creating a world that melted and coalesced as we globetrotted through the story. In front of this backdrop the cast performed a similar series of visual tricks and sleights of hand that added to the illusory nature of the tale.
The finishing layer of gloss on this production is a sweeping musical score created by Composer David Ben Shannon and Musical Director Jack Quarton, the latter appearing in character at one point playing an accordion. An early tweet from the company during rehearsals said that the theatre sounded as though they had hired the Phil from round the corner, and I can see what they mean. Adding to this the well-chosen pieces of Shostakovich that are used for the pre and post-show music and I think Vasily Petrenko would feel quite at home in the Unity this week.
The play was adapted and directed here by Max Rubin, who clearly loves the book and has gone all out to capitalise on the surreal and comedic aspects of it, while never losing sight of its satirical bite.
The second of two ambitious adaptations of classic Russian novels to hit our Liverpool stages this month, The Master and Margarita plays at Unity One until Saturday 12th October. Performances are selling out fast, so grab a ticket while you can.
Contact www.unitytheatreliverpool.co.uk or call 0844 873 2888 or 0151 709 4988 for details and ticket sales.