In the lead up to this year’s Melbourne Festival Aussie Theatre’s Brendan McCallum caught up with director Daniel Schlusser to talk about his adaptation of one of the canonical masterpieces of Russian literature, Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita
Giant, demonic cats, godless political machines and Biblical figures such as Pontius Pilate and Jesus the Nazarene present an intoxicating provocation for Daniel Schlusser in M+M, a work begat by the dark majesty of Soviet writer Mikhail Bulgakov’s monumental satire The Master and Margarita. But, as the Devil could tell you, all may not be what it seems in this adaptation of the Russian masterpiece, as contemporary post-capitalism and punk spectacle collide in this Melbourne Festival co-commission.
Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, written in the years between the two great wars that marred the twentieth century but not published in book form until after the Iron Curtain was drawn across a divided Europe, has been hailed as one of the canonical masterpieces of Russian literature. A layered, allegorical work, it satirised the bureaucratic nightmare of the Communist experiment in explicitly religio-mystical terms, railing against the soulless regime of the politburo and evoking both Christ and the Devil in a world of divine light and occult dark. Walking amongst its worldly cast of mid-century authors, maids and political apparatchiks, are assorted demons, sorcerers, and succubi, all seeking to amplify the human gift for corruption and betrayal. Needless to say, adapting such a work for the stage presents exciting opportunities and monumental challenges, which director Daniel Schlusser is only too aware of.
For one, Schlusser is keen to stress that a straight adaptation is the last thing he has aspired to over the five years that have led to the development of M+M. Even the title is a conscious nod to deflate the expectations of those who would desire a literalistic approach to what has become a deeply celebrated work, with over five hundred known adaptations for the stage, and dozens of renderings for film and television. “I don’t know if you’ve seen any of the movie versions,” Schlusser says of such efforts, “but they are really unwatchable. There’s a Russian version that’s six hours long and almost does shot for shot what the book does, and it’s a dead piece of work.”
Perhaps, it could be argued, the more literal or faithful the attempt in translating an existing work from another medium, the more you imprison what its original purpose and sensibility was? “Absolutely,” Schlusser agrees. “People say ‘you’ve been working on this for five years’, and it’s true to a degree, but what we really used our development times for were for the process of shedding and discarding and working out what you can legitimately translate to stage, and invariably finding that most of it you can’t.” Slavish deference to the source, for Schlusser, is anathema. “You might as well be doing an audiobook version.”
Such comments, however, confirm rather than belie the director’s deep affection for the source material. “In a way this is the hardest project I’ve ever done, because Bulgakov is probably my favourite writer,” he says. “Even though we’re creating something that I think people will receive as quite an abstracted work of art in some ways, it is actually a legitimate attempt to get the spirit or the flavor of that writer and that novel really truly, rather than through traditional theatre signs. The irony is,” he observes, “that by trying to be more precisely faithful, we’re actually further and further away from the specifics of that book, in a quest to actually nail what the thesis is.”
For Schlusser, worshipping the author is the last thing he would hope to do. It is, after all, the submerged, subversive meaning of The Master and Margarita that resonates with him. “We’ve created a world where a lot of the normally stable signifiers of the theatrical environment are really undermined from the get-go, and we’re hoping to get quite an experiential, immediate sensation for an audience of the kind of discombobulation those poor citizens of Moscow experienced, particularly in the first half of the book.” None of which comes particularly easy, as Schlusser reflects on the challenges of finding simpatico with an artist whose work has clearly impacted deeply upon him. “You do actually need a certain level of disrespect to get to work.”
Schlusser is ably assisted in his attempts by a trusted group of performers that, for many, represent some of Australia’s finest contemporary stage talent. Josh Price, Johnny Carr, Edwina Wren, Karen Sibbing and Nikki Shiels, along with Mark Winter, have helped bring the crazed, intoxicating world of Bulgakov’s novel into its present dark and evocative iteration. “It’s crazy good. It’s like an A-Team,” he effuses of his cast. “They all have a kind of charisma, that means that that sort of shift between victims in the work, the people on which these events are enacted…” He pauses while he shapes his intended meaning, then continues. “It’s an ability to see the archetypal demon within an ordinary human being, and they have an ability to bristle and enlarge in ways that I think are really quite magical.”
Just as Bulgakov’s original work has often been interpreted as heavily imbued with Masonic and occult symbology, with its central event of a Walpurgis Night ball (a mythical May Day meeting where witches and sorcerers gather to revel with their gods) and the celestial power of the Moon enveloping all, M+M looks certain to bring some of theatre’s oldest, deepest intent – that of a communal experience with the hidden powers of the arcana mundi – to the fore. Given the director’s focus on contemporary lightning rods such as Pussy Riot’s incarceration and the threatened collapse of the capitalist superstructure to contextualize the work for contemporary audiences, will Abadonna’s angel of Death, or Behemoth/Begemot, the demon cat with a penchant for vodka and pistols, make an appearance?
“Behemoth makes an appearance,” he says, laughing. “I’m not going to say any more than that. I think we’ve found a solution.” And with that, one of Australia’s most daring stage magicians signs off and, as the best tricksters often do, leaves us a tantalizing invitation to follow.
M+M is showing as part of The Melbourne Festival at Theatre Works from October 8-16. Bookings can be made via Theatre Works on (03) 9534 3388 and theatreworks.org.au, or via Ticketmaster on 136 100 and melbournefestival.com.au