Anyone unable to make the trip to Edinburgh but feeling like something to stimulate a jaded palate should hot-foot it immediately down to West Sussex. There they’ll find a repertoire that for sheer intellectual ambition really puts most of our subsidised theatres currently to shame with a schedule that recalls the most heady, adventurous, vintage years of the RSC and Glasgow Citizens.
With The Master and Margarita, joint artistic director Stephen Pimlott in Edward Kemp's adaptation of Mikhail Bulgakov's cult novel has once again - as he and Kemp did last year with Gotthold Lessing's Nathan the Wise - triumphantly staged the unstageable.
Bulgakov's last work is a great sprawling classic. Written in 1940 as a cri de Coeur and published well after his death (1973), it reflects fairly familiar territory – the persecution of the artist under Stalinism. Kemp's superb adaptation turns it into a picaresque, mischievous and ultimately moving play-within-a-play pageant that conjures a hallucinatory world of sinners and saints, artists and political apparatchiks, magicians and lunatic asylums, heaven and hell all bumping up against each other.
Madness and confusion are never very far away as Pontius Pilate disputes niceties with Jesus; Bulgakov's alter ego, the playwright, loses his wits; Margarita, his lover and muse, literally goes to hell to save him; and Michael Feast's mesmerising golden-toothed, glassy-eyed Devil subversively emerges as the truest dispenser of justice.
All of which may sound a tad indigestible and it's true: for all Pimlott's imaginative sweep, physically precise ensemble production and eerie, burlesque atmosphere charmed up by Jason Carr's music, played live, The Master and Margarita can sometimes seem heavy-handed.
Yet, it also remains important, exhilarating and indispensable. If Chichester had to justify their existence, this alone would do it. Go and see The Master and Margarita for its breadth, its refusal to be confined, and unfashionably, its mixture of fun and despair, of the political, the artistic and the possibility of the metaphysical.
In a massive 26-strong cast led by heavyweights Samuel West as the playwright, Clare Holman as Margarita and the irrepressible Feast, it’s also smaller corners that remain in the memory – Graham Turner's one-fanged, slightly camp, ambiguous demon by turns conveying malevolence and compassion, and Jonathan Cullen's fellow travelling writer whose final epilogue so quietly and eloquently reminds us of the huge price paid for creativity and its indestructible beauty.
- Carole Woddis