Saturday, 19 January 2013


Barbican Theatre, London
14th Dec '12 - 19th Jan '13

“The same passage read twice can double you up with laughter on one reading, and shake you with its menace on the second. The moment you decide what something means, it at once resists and seems to writhe its way out of your grasp, revealing itself as something quite different. But however stranger or contradictory, it always holds you in its grip.”
- Director Simon McBurney (from the programme)

This stage adaptation is peppered by bureaucrats or busybodies pronouncing Bulgakov's source novel “unpublishable” - despite the fact that here they stand before us. Then, very near the end, it comes to be called “unfinished”.

Which, of course, it is. The history of a work of art gets inscribed over the work itself, like a palimpsest. First contemporary history, then the response of succeeding generations... deepening like a coastal shelf. We all know the novel was never published during Bulgakov's lifetime, a microcosm of the problems he faced in Stalin's Russia. We all know it finally appeared in the Sixties and Mick Jagger wrote 'Sympathy For the Devil' after reading it. None of that is in the novel itself. But it cannot do other than permeate the book we now read, seeping through the pages like it's been left out in the weather of history.

But to stage an adaptation that tries to incorporate that expanded perspective? That's a pretty audacious step; particularly when we're talking about a work that's already multi-layered and metafictional, that isn't especially long but still feels vast, that interweaves plot strands on a scale that must have required an industrial loom. Things were, in short, pretty bloody expanded to start off with! But in fact it's made necessary precisely by the novel's meta-fictional conceits and multi-levelled structure. Of course it's unfinished, it was never intended as a closed, complete, didactic work. It's a decision which leaves us with a three-hour-plus performance, which is sometimes all too much to take in. But it's the only way to go.

Notably proceedings jump back and forth between a play, where actors playing characters interact with each other in scenes, and a performance, where figures take on roles to address the audience – even speaking into stand-up microphones like comperes.

If the expanded perspective does tend to come more through the microphones, things aren't so schematic as for one to represent the novel and the other our reading of it. But putting the two different dramatic devices side-by-side serves to remind us that both are at work.

At the same time, one blending into the other... that's part of the point too. Stage dressing is minimal enough to make Brecht blush. Rooms are created by beams of light projected on the floor, actors navigating through projected doorways like Cluedo counters. At one point a secretary tries to explain how a door opens, going through the possible options until crying in frustration “Just go in, there's no door!” Like those beams of light, everything here shifts and morphs.

Then again... I've commented before how adaptations of polyphonic works tend to unravel into one singular reading or other. It's like pulling at a thread from a jumper, you don't end up with the essence of the jumper, you end up without a jumper. Perhaps there's something inevitable in that. To pick a petty but perhaps telling example, in the novel everyone imagines the sinister  stranger Woland to be foreign - but fails to pin him to a country. In the play he must speak his lines and so choose an accent. (Though if he picks German, naturally enough it's heavily suggested he's not really German.)

This production, to be fair, offers us two threads to tug. One we might call the 'Singing Detective' reading. The titular Master is the author of the book-within-the-book. Underlined by a bookend structure, this suggests writing it has driven him crazy - and he's now in an asylum feverishly dreaming the events, a tangle of delusions where once there might have been straight thoughts in his head. Characters don't just (as in the novel) repeat and echo each others' lines, they swap actors and identities. (Chiefly, significantly, the author and the diabolic antagonist Woland.) At points there's nothing short of cacophony on stage. But as the author recovers they are reconciled, characters merge, the panoply coalescing into one another.

...which is a pretty good reading. It's probably one any writer could recognise. But I don't think it's the dominant reading here. Another one overlays it.

In the programme, Director Simon McBurney disdains the Sixties hallucinogenic reading and comments “in the Soviet Union this novel was not perceived as a fantasy at all. It was about their lives.”

All of which may well be true. At the opening of the book, Woland scoffs at the idea man no longer needs God as he can plan for himself. A contemporary audience would doubtless have seen a reference to Stalin's disastrous series of Five Year Plans.

However, when I read the novel, I was struck by how un-Soviet the setting was, how downright bourgeois the behaviour of the characters. It's stuffed with poets and writers, not workers or dissidents. Berlioz, the first character described in the first paragraph, is “well-fed and bald... neatly clean-shaven” with a “decorous pork-pie hat.”

Of course Bulgakov is not Orwell, and this book in particular is no analogue of 'Animal Farm.' Whatever he is, Woland is not Stalin. Besides, we're now in London, at a time where there's no longer even such a thing as the Soviet Union. But of course McBurney knows all that. In the opening, a Google Earth projection flashes up to shows us precisely where the setting of Patriarch's Ponds lies in Moscow. But the narrator then compares it to the more familiar Russell Square in London. Despite the dynamic visual of the first, it's the second which comes to seem more significant. McBurney has said his aim was a “questioning the dominant narratives of our time, which is what Bulgakov is doing [for his].” But in his keenness to avoid both the post-Sixties freak-out and historical timepiece, he sets himself up to step into a different snare.

The two main parallel plot-lines are Bible times (the setting of the Master's novel), and then-contemporary Soviet Russia. The production tends to emphasise the contrasts between the time of Christ's appearing and the Devil's, at a time and place where people were atheists or put on a great show of it. Electricity crackles through the production almost as much as Danny Boyle's recent version of 'Frankenstein'. Soviet Russia becomes the start of our modern era, it's electrified trams starting a lineage that leads directly to the iPhones in this audience's pockets. Soviet Russia is seen as the onset of modernity, a lightning rod for a contemporary kind of materialistic atheism. When Woland addresses the audience from the Moscow stage, it's underlined he is actually addressing us, here in this room. Microphone trumps staging.

This view of Soviet Russia is almost a refreshing change from the standard one of it as an aberration. We tend to look upon it armed with hindsight, as a lumbering anachronism which somehow just about made it into the end of the Eighties, the Neanderthal of modern times. Yet the classic Stalinist argument, that the revolution took Russia into the Twentieth Century, is on it's own terms correct. (Reader, please note that qualifying clause!)

Ultimately, despite the many good things you could say about this production, a creditable flaw is still a flaw. McBurney goes to laudible lengths to make the source material contemporary. But had he made it, as intended, universal then it would have become contemporary by default. Despite all the wacky modernist metafictional stuff, Bulgakov's novel is at root a cross between a parable and a fable – and parables tend to the timeless. In his stage speech,Woland asks “I'm not so much interested in the buses and the telephones as in the much more important question – have the Muscovites changed inwardly?” His ensuing misrule would suggest not.

The Biblical setting doesn't contrast against the then-contemporary Moscow, they even share the same Easter setting. It's more that they start out as separate stories which come to express the same timeless truth.

In one of Bulgakov's many structural strangenesses, the title-sharing Margarita doesn't show up until half-way through. Delaying her arrival until the second book of the novel may work to subliminally remind us of the New Testament. Certainly she plays much the same redemptive role as the Jesus figure Yeshua, rather than becoming corrupted by the world achieving the very reverse. (Think for example of the way both are reduced to nakedness.) Arguably her powers are still greater than Yeshua's, and she's able to redeem Woland himself.

In some ways the nearest comparison to this adaptation might be David Cronenberg's film of 'The Naked Lunch', not a film version of another unadaptable novel so much as a mythopoetic account of the writing of the book. It works as companion piece, not adaptation. Confronted by an unstageable novel the production instead focuses on everything around the book, chiefly keeping an eye out for what it might mean for us today. But for all it's virtues, all it's imagination and dazzling virtuosity, the result does rather fall between stools. 'Naked Lunch' has very little of the original book to it, and it didn't matter one whit. This production has either too much or not enough of the book, holding to it's narrative structure but then bending it to a more contemporary purpose.

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