Theatre review: The Master and Margarita, Belvoir St Theatre

Adapted from Bulgakov's classic novel, this stage version is compelling whether or not you're familiar with the original book.
The Master and Margarita. Image is a group of five actors sitting, crouching or standing on stage in front of a huge lit W sign.

Belvoir St Theatre’s acclaimed production of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita has extended its season, adding additional performances, and you should fight to get a ticket. It’s spectacularly, subversively, gorgeously, bonkers – and not to be missed. 

Adapting a novel that many literary critics believe to be one of the best of the 20th century is no small feat, but Belvoir’s Artistic Director Eamon Flack, assisted by Dramaturg Tom Wright, have approached it with a great deal of love, in order to pay homage to this extraordinary novel, which was written in secret during Stalin’s dangerous regime in the USSR, kept hidden for years by Bulgakov’s wife and published posthumously. 

But this is no dusty retelling of a historical moment. Nor is it a mere staging of the book’s plot. Rather it captures the essence of the work and its quest for freedom amid the restrictive insanity of daily life with all its societal and political oppressions.

However, the strength of the production is that it works equally well whether you are familiar with the source material or if you are not. For this is theatre at its most exciting – unexpected, transformative and totally relatable to the world in which we live. And best of all, it’s also incredibly funny. Funny, moving, challenging and totally engrossing to watch. 

Director Flack is known for his focus on bringing works an Australian relevance, and he has triumphed with this adaptation. Flack creates an absolutely magical space, uncluttered yet somehow filled with detail – myriad theatrical effects that spin his actors and audience through the tale and transport the viewer to a place where anything is possible and the absurd becomes normal.

The humour seduces us into embracing the political and emotional discourse without struggle and leaves us smiling yet disturbed. It’s a perfect reflection of Bulgakov’s intent – delightful yet dangerous.   

It is near impossible to single out specific performances as this is an ensemble cast of breathtaking power and skill. Equally at home exploring “low” comedy and “high” drama, each of the 10 performers adds their unique personalities into the work with the assured confidence of experienced artists comfortable – quite literally – in their own skins.

Paula Arundell’s Woland has a powerful presence and Anna Samson becomes incandescent as her Margarita soars across the candlelit night sky – becoming most visible when she is invisible. A lovely piece of imagery. But every cast member is wonderful – it is uniformly inventive and perfect casting. Their timing is spot on and it is a privilege to watch them at work. 

This production is a lovely piece of collaborative theatrical storytelling. Flack and his team of creatives really understand the novel and that knowledge frees them up to explore the themes of the work rather than being bound to the narrative.

There is a lot of technical experience behind the scenes to make what appears on stage appear simple and whimsical. Nick Schlieper’s lighting is transformative and Romaine Harper’s objects and costumes are meticulously relevant. Emma Maye Gibson guides some beautiful performances and the illusions created by Adam Mada with Harry Milas from Magic Inc often make the audience gasp with surprise and joy. It is an unexpected and visually beautiful experience and a tribute to the best traditions of live performance. 

Read: Theatre review: I ME SHE HIM 你和我和她和他, Bluestone Church Arts Space

The theatre was packed when this reviewer attended and Belvoir has made the right choice to extend, allowing more of us to engage with this wonderful and beautiful production. Flack’s superb adaptation is a work that certainly deserves an extended life beyond this premiere season. Let us hope there are more of these developments ahead, for they are the heartbeat of great, relevant and transformative Australian theatre. 

The Master and Margarita
Adapted and Directed by Eamon Flack
From the novel by Mikhail Bulgakov
Upstairs Theatre
, Belvoir St Theatre
Dramaturg: Tom Wright
Space and Lighting Design: Nick Schlieper
Object and Costume design: Romaine Harper
Sound design and Composer: Stefan Gregory

Associate Sound Designer: Jess Dunn
Associate Composer: Hamed Sadeghi
Choreography: Elle Evangelista

Intimacy Director: Chloë Dallimore
Fight/Movement Director: Nigel Poulton
Fight/Movement Associate: Tim Dashwood
Performance Guide: Emma Maye Gibson
Voice Coach: Laura Farrell
Stage Manager: Luke McGettigan
Assistant Stage Manager: Madelaine Osborn
NIDA Stage Management Secondment: Grace Sackman
Magic and Illusions: Magic Inc
(Adam Mada, Harry Milas)

Cast: Paula Arundell, Tom Conroy, Gary Daley, Marco Chiappi, Gareth Davies, Amber McMahon, Josh Price, Matilda Ridgway, Anna Samson, Mark Leonard Winter, Jana Zvedeniuk.

Prices: $37-$72 

The Master and Margarita will be performed until 17 December 2023.

Dennis Clements is a NIDA Acting graduate and has a BA focused on Literature, Theatre and Journalism. He won the Theatre prize in his graduation year from Curtin University in WA. He has extensive leading role performance credits in both professional and community based companies, and has directed numerous productions for Bankstown Theatre Company and Ashfield Musical society. He is a registered Marriage Celebrant if you want to get hitched, and has also reviewed for Australian Stage online theatre magazine for several years.