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Extremely imaginative Master and Margarita gets cheering reception on #HF12

Shakespeare had it, Oscar savage had it, Monty Python had it and Simon McBurney has trucks full of it. So it is British and it is called humour, or rather the ability to show the absurdity of life as simultaneously hilarious and deeply tragic. And let that also apply to Russian Mikhail Bulgakov. So his unfinished novel The Master and Margarita has now had to wait almost 75 years for a director like Simon McBurney to turn it into theatre.

Retelling is impossible at Bulgakov's novel. He intertwined three storylines in such an inimitable way that it actually dizzies after only 15 minutes of reading. There is a poet who ends up in an insane asylum, where he meets a museum attendant who also wrote, but had to pay for it with an incarceration in the same asylum. His muse, called Margarita, sells her soul to the devil to get her Master back. And that devil has an apple to peel with Pilate, the Roman Procurator who had one Jesus of Nazareth nailed to the cross 2,000 years earlier.

Retelling the performance is as impossible as retelling the book, but let me give it a shot. On a virtually empty stage, a team of 16 actors and another throng of technicians and cameramen tell the magical-realist story, supported by the best HD and 3D graphics ever seen in a theatre. There are no walls to indicate rooms, but with light McBurney draws lines on the floor. It alludes to Lars von Trier's film Dogville.

As in his earlier work, particularly the equally peerless show A Disappearing Number, which was shown at the Holland Festival in 2007, McBurney occasionally tilts the entire stage. Cameras aimed at the reclining actors from the ridge of the stage tower bring them to life on the back wall via projections standing up. And then we also have a justifiably dizzying lead role for Google Earth.

The devil in this performance is a direct reference to Stanley Kubrick's masterful film Dr Strangelove, and the Rolling Stones' famous song Sympathy for the Devil, written by Jagger as a tribute to Bulgakov's novel, falls just short. We get stuck with another Stones song. So here for a moment, because I couldn't get the song out of my head afterwards.

In case you are thinking: these are all a bit much bells and whistles for a theatre performance, you are not right, although the ten people who did not return after the interval in the sold-out City Theatre might think otherwise. You could be right if these bells and whistles had fallen into the hands of people who have no talent for them. But Simon McBurney does have talent. But more than that: he realises that a kaleidoscopic novel like Bulgakov's can only come to life with a supreme appeal to the imagination. And he successfully makes that appeal to himself, his collaborators and, above all: to us, the audience.

The actors are narrator and character in one, and do so convincingly: they do not put themselves before their character, as happens in some Dutch performances, but put everything at the service of the story. Thus, they effortlessly drag you along, after which, at the end, you are at least as confused as the characters in Bulgakov's novel.

Because that is perhaps the best thing about this show: in the vast multitude of images, styles and storylines, not only does the humour reach an extremely high level, but above all the tragedy strikes mercilessly.

At the end, there were fairly massive cheers. That rarely happens at a stage premiere in the Netherlands. But it was more than deserved.

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Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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