The Master and Margarita is a novel by Soviet writer Mikhail Bulgakov, written in secret in the Soviet Union between 1928 and 1940, during Stalin’s regime. Banned and censored for many decades, it wasn’t until the late 60’s that a complete manuscript was finally published. Now, devised by the cast and creative team, and adapted and directed by Eamon Flack, the work opens at Belvoir St Theatre this November
For actor, Anna Samson, the play both compelled and frightened her.
“I didn’t immediately know how to approach a work of this scale and one that defies categorisation. It felt wild and untameable. And the character of Margarita remained an enigma to me for some time. I think that’s what is exciting me these days. Challenge and growth and roles that scare the shit out of me. I don’t know how to do this…is a great starting point for an artist.
Then of course there’s the more ego driven reasons…wanting to return to Belvoir, having wanted to work with Eamon Flack for a long time, wanting to be surrounded by actors of such calibre.”
Samson, of course, plays the eponymous Margarita who is often said to be at the centre of the work.
“And although she doesn’t move into the role of protagonist until halfway through the story, she holds all the realities of the work within her,” Samson explains. “She exists within Soviet Russia, she holds the story of Pontius Pilate, she enters the supernatural realm, as well as being in the reality of the Belvoir theatre, and with our audience.”
Samson says the more she talks to people about the book the more she realises that it means different things to different people. “This is one of the reasons it is a classic of 20th century literature. Margarita means different things too. Our Margarita is different in some ways to the novel, Eamon and I have worked to escape tropes, or lazy interpretations of wives and witches. Though I can argue that some literary tropes are useful, as a shorthand to understanding, but here we need her to be a living, breathing, sweating force on the stage.
Margarita is a hero. She is deeply unhappy when we meet her and is weighing up the possibilities of her own life and death. She has lost her great love. She is crushed by a system. But is continually, both subconsciously and consciously, in the pursuit of freedom. All the things she loses she reclaims. Her inner child and inner clown and righteous anger are released through great acts of imagination and courage. She is the bravest role I’ve played.”
Multi-layered, Bulgakov wants the reader to think about good and evil, light and darkness. Themes include love, loss, fear, bravery, compassion, cowardice, guilt, repression, oppression, paranoia and madness.
“The ripples of the regime Bulgakov was writing under (and against) continue to warp our contemporary age,” says Samson. “I find it imperative to state the obvious here: our specie’s history of unimaginable immorality, arbitrary cruelty and power-driven oppression has gone nowhere.
Sometimes it’s hard to believe that art is of great importance when we are seeing such unbearable things happening in the world. But I’ve never stopped believing that storytelling is a human right, and absolutely vital. The novel and the show are acts of rebellion towards any and all power systems. Because although unbearable cruelty has gone nowhere, nor has the human power to imagine something better for ourselves and the power to set ourselves free. It is not a sentimental work, it is in some ways painfully realistic in its understanding of how human beings must cope with terror, but it is certainly beautiful.”
Given the unique approach and collaborative approach to adapting Bulgakov’s original, Samson says her most exciting time in the rehearsal room has been to see ‘this glorious cast’ trust in a mode of theatre-making unlike the usual blueprint for a production. “We are making the tracks we must travel along as we go,” she says. “So, it’s scary. We will finish creating the play the day we start technical rehearsals. Which is where the focus shifts from the actor’s rehearsals to the technical elements of the show. Of which there are many. We will continue to rehearse with our audiences in preview performances in a very real sense. That demands bravery and skill and trust and a decent dose of madness.”
For fans of the original novel, Samson says the adaptation is true to the spirit of the novel, if not every detail. “To put in every moment from the book would mean a solid twenty-hour show. Maybe more! The novel is absolutely endless in its revelations.”
She cites Flack as a great interpreter of text, and a truly passionate nerd about this novel.
“His treatment of what Bulgakov was doing has great depth, true admiration, and I would say, love. If something has been added it’s with great care, ensuring that it remains in the spirit and intention of Bulgakov. It’s a huge task for Eamon. I constantly wonder what Bulgakov would have made of our show if he could see it. I hope we would make him grin and say, “fuck yes”. This production never loses sight of the absurdity of life.
This absurdity was for Bulgakov (and for many) a means of survival. Eamon has captured that. The fact that there is inherent theatricality in the novel helps us.
The humour and humanity is what shines through in Eamon’s production.”
Samson is possibly best known for her role as Mia Anderson on Home and Away but has been a working actor for over a decade.. As an actor, she says she doesn’t think she’s unique in being drawn to the more “difficult” characters of the stage.
“You know those words; difficult, challenging, contradictory, damaged, complicated, dark, they are all just words that cumulatively mean …human.
There is an unmasking that all roles require. And the things I am most interested in exposing are my own darker corners, my weaknesses, my bravery, my folly and my fear.
That very thin veil over all our ugly, wonderful humanity is an interesting thing to dance with. What shapes and sounds do we make to survive being alive? These things excite me in my work.”
Samson adores everything about performing in theatre. And it never stops terrifying her. “Theatre gets the best of me. Its very nature demands something true of you. It demands our humanity. Actor and audience,” she says. “It’s nice to have an arena where truth is hard to ignore. A true response, a laugh, a gasp, a mistake. Even in a constructed environment, truth has a tendency to thrive in the theatre.”
The tale, The Master and Margarita, unfurls from ancient Galilee to Stalin’s Moscow, via a giant talking cat, a mad novelist, a ruthless officer of the secret police… At its centre is Margarita, who has become driven to risk it all to save a lost manuscript – and us all.
Says Samson, “Come and let us tell you a story. It will take you far from home, and through the darkest night but by the end…the world will be a little more magical. Also…it’s a bit fucking mad, and that’s always great to witness.”
Running till December 10