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Master and Margarita

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Hamid Ismailov Hamid Ismailov | 12:01 UK time, Friday, 21 December 2012

In my youth I had a colleague in one of the Soviet institutions where I worked who was a typist. She helped me from time to time with typing my manuscripts. Once she had a

She was much older than me and used to study by correspondence at the philology department of the university.

Her problem was that she should have written an essay on Gogol and
Bulgakov but she hadn't read the books.

I promised to help her as that was the time when the entire country was reading Bulgakov's rediscovered 'Master and Margarita'. Not only was it promised but I masterfully delivered that inspirational essay.

I loved the theme; both writers were from Ukraine, with a wonderfully skewed view of Russian life and literature. Both extensively used fantasmagory and surrealism in their writings, though the difference was that Gogol had started his writing career with it, whereas Bulgakov came to those elements towards the end of his writing life.

There was another strikingly common moment - Gogol burnt the manuscript of his last novel, just as the Master of Bulgakov had.

But as Bulgakov said: 'manuscripts don't burn'. The last phrase was key for my essay and it played a surreal 'Gogolesque or Bulgakovesque' role in the life of my poor colleague.

One day she came to work in a desperate mood. 'What have you done to me?!' - she exclaimed repeatedly.

'What's the matter?' - I asked her, completely lost.

'Your essay won the first prize and now my tutor is requiring me to continue my research and write a PhD thesis!'

My poor simple colleague!

I recalled this embarrassing incident while watching 'Master and Margarita' at London's Barbican Centre, staged by the 'Complicite' theatre company.

Mikhail Bulgakov shot to fame in the 1930s because of his plays rather than his prose. So it's interesting to see the process of deconstruction of his novel into a play.

A famous Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin defined two schools of Russian prose: that of Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevskiy. According to Bakhtin, the first school is a monologic one and the second is based on dialogue.

The school of Tolstoy looks at the world from the point of view of a single author-protagonist, whereas the school of Dostoevskiy grants the right of speech to the characters.

In that sense Bulgakov is a writer of the Dostoevskiy's school. Therefore even his novels, with 'Master and Margarita' in particular, are structured like dramas with several counter-points of views.

'Master and Margarita' is an especially complicated and multi-layered novel with several equally important stories within one narrative: the story of the Devil descending with his team onto Moscow is intertwined with the story of the Master's love to Margarita and the story of Jesus Christ (Ieshua Ga-Nozri) crucified by Pontius Pilate.

The play staged by Simon McBurney greatly exploits that interplay, adding the drama of different platforms to the drama of plots. Acting is intertwined with video, sound interplays with both of those, actors interact with audience, everything swirls like a Russian blizzard or the Moscow hectic after-revolutionary life.

In the interval after the first part (which had lasted nearly two hours) I was thinking - 'What a brilliant production!','But what is left for the second part apart from the Satan's ball?'

I proved to be right on both accounts; the second part was mostly about Devil's ball and the overly long ending. It's understandable: one had to bring every strand of the story to the culminating end: to set up the ball of Satan with the nude Margarita, to crucify Ieshua Ga-Nozri, to get the Master out of the mental house and unite him in the hereafter with Margarita.

Just to keep this serial ending going on, Satan all of a sudden turned out to be the Master - then the very same Satan unexpectedly transformed into Jesus Christ...

All in all it was a wonderful show which I recommended to all of my colleagues as a festive treat.

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