Sunday 25 March 2012

Two nights at the theatre - The Master and Margarita at the Barbican and Purge at the Arcola

Is it just me or is there some extra special drama on the London stage at the moment? Having recently seen "Collaborators" at the National, I have developed a bit of a Soviet theme, seeing Theatre de Complicite's stunning dramatisation of Bulgakov's novel, "The Master and Margarita"at the Barbican, and the deeply disturbing "Purge" by Finnish writer Sofi Oksanen at the new Arcola in Dalston.

The plays are set in different times - "The Master" in Moscow in 1938 at the height of the Soviet period and works through themes of good and evil, truth and lies. Bulgakov particularly attacks the "middle class" of the Soviet empire in the form of the literary club "MASSOLIT" whose members routinely accommodated the excesses of the regime to make sure their own substandard work was published, more interesting work suppressed and that they held on to the material luxuries forbidden to most of their countrymen.

"Purge" is somewhat different. Set in post Soviet Estonia, it examines the impact of decades of violence and oppression, the appalling choices faced by ordinary people and the terrible compromises some made with the regime in order to survive. This reaches its zenith in the description of main character Aliide's enforced participation in the torture of her 10 year old niece in 1947 and her subsequent denouncement of her own sister because she could no longer face her. Aliide's speech about making compromises with the regime in order to survive, whatever that regime might be, sums up the choices faced by many people under totalitarian regimes of all hues.

The physical staging of the two productions could not be less alike. "The Master" is played at the Barbican. Full use is made of the large stage with stunning backdrops, technology and music. "Purge" can be seen in the very small studio at the Arcola, the actors very close to the audience and with minimal staging  - all of the action taking place with a single backdrop apart from a short use of video at the beginning of the play.

Both plays are dark but have have moments of comedy. In "The Master" Woland, and his entourage engage directly with the audience, Koroviev even leaving the stage to examine the attire of women in the front row, suggesting they are wearing expensive designer clothes until he stops in front of one women to say "oh yes, Primark". In "Purge" Allida, - is asked by her unexpected visitor, Zara, why there is excrement on her windows. Aliide replies "Well that's what happens in the country". We later find out its been thrown there by neighbours who know that Aliide's late husband was an informer for the Soviet regime and her words take on a darker meaning.

Both plays consider redemption. In "The Master and Margarita", Margarita and her lover are reunited after his death and her pact with Woland, who may or may not be the devil, although they are not allowed full daylight, they are granted peace. Aliide's redemption or purging, is one of flames - she douses herself and her home in paraffin and strikes a match, but only once she has made sure her niece's daughter is safe and has a new future.

There are also flames in "The Master" when the banned novelist Ivan Nikolayevich Bezdomny, Margarita's lover, burns his own work - the manuscript of the novel within the novel, (or in this case the play within the play) about Pilate and Yeshua, set in Jerusalem and used to illustrate ideas of censorship and power throughout history. Woland restores his work to him saying "Manuscripts don't burn". This is perhaps the best known phrase from Bulgakov's novel and affirms the ability of art to outlast political regimes. This is somewhat ironic given that the book remained unpublished throughout his life. He died in 1940, aged just 48with no indication that the book would ever see the light of day. It remained at least partly suppressed in the Soviet Union until 1973.

I loved the new Arcola. Its in a section of the old paint factory in what is becoming a very "happening" part of Dalston, adjacent to a bohemian cafe/ bar and just across the road from Dalston's trendy new library. The theatre has retained several of the features of the building including the fantastic kiosk that is used as the ticket office, whilst the tiny cafe is furnished with great old, somewhat "distressed" tables, chairs and lamps. Good coffee too.

The Arcola has another interesting play coming, called " A Warsaw Melody" playing for one month from the end of March. Written by Leonid Zorin in 1967, it is a romance between a Russian man and a Polish woman during Stalin's reign. The theme continues...

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