The Master and Margarita, Festival Theatre, Chichester

Under the spell of a magician
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The devil makes an unscheduled visit to Stalinist Moscow as an expert in black magic in Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita. Here's an even odder thing. In the old unlamented days, you'd have been about as likely to see Theatre de Complicite tackling a William Douglas-Home comedy as witness the Chichester Festival Theatre mounting a main stage adaptation of a long, dauntingly rich proto-magical realist novel by a subversive Russian, replete with a cast of 20-plus, an on-stage band playing specially composed music and a magic adviser.

The devil makes an unscheduled visit to Stalinist Moscow as an expert in black magic in Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita. Here's an even odder thing. In the old unlamented days, you'd have been about as likely to see Theatre de Complicite tackling a William Douglas-Home comedy as witness the Chichester Festival Theatre mounting a main stage adaptation of a long, dauntingly rich proto-magical realist novel by a subversive Russian, replete with a cast of 20-plus, an on-stage band playing specially composed music and a magic adviser.

That, though, is what is on offer in a production by Steven Pimlott that tempts you to do the unthinkable: put the words "Chichester" and "cutting-edge" in the same sentence.

Written in secret between 1928 and his death in 1940, Bulgakov's book is at once a love-story, a Faustian tragicomedy and an exuberantly savage satire on die-hard Soviet materialism. Edward Kemp's astute adaptation makes all the right adjustments. Converting the eponymous hero from a novelist to a playwright allows us to see rehearsed excerpts from his banned work, a dramatic confrontation between Pontius Pilate and a dissident Christ figure who believes that "all authority is a form of violence against people". These adroitly negotiated transitions between play and outer world highlight how trickily art and life mirror each other in their anxious preoccupation with artistic censorship ("manuscripts don't burn"), state power and cre-ative compromise.

But the depressed and unselfconfident Master (the excellent Sam West) is only a partial portrait of the author. You could argue that the jesting, carnivalesque side of Bulgakov is better reflected in Michael Feast's camp, glintingly diabolical Woland. With his retinue of a huge talking cat and assorted oddballs, this sinister joker has a violently disruptive effect on Moscow. One theatre apparatchik is decapitated, another is instantaneously exiled to Yalta (he's played in a drolly self-mocking touch by Martin Duncan, one of Chichester's artistic directors); blood is spilt and bank notes cascade from the ceiling at a conjuring show.

Yet Woland's pranks are also therapeutic in the way that they riotously debunk the smug Soviet debunkers who claimed that there was nothing beyond the material. The epigraph to Bulgakov's book comes from the moment in Goethe's Faust when the hero asks Mephistopheles "What art thou?" and receives the reply, "Part of that power which eternally wills evil and eternally works good."

This is the paradoxical outcome of Woland's manoeuvres. You wouldn't want to be caught dead at one of his parties, like the wackily staged Walpurgisnacht Ball for the revived stiffs of (among others) Jack the Ripper and Caligula. But his devilish pact with the heroine Margarita (a wonderfully ardent Clare Holman) succeeds in turning her into a sexy witch who has the power to demand reunion with the Master. "If only they would all learn to acknowledge shadows," sighs Woland, bewailing a regime that would "flay the surface of the earth to enjoy a fantasy of bare light".

Though it was suffering a little from second-night tiredness syndrome the evening I saw it, Pimlott's highly inventive production clearly has the measure of the work's mighty imaginative compass and its roller-coaster shifts of tone. "Cowardice is the only sin," declares the Master. By that token, the Festival Theatre is currently sinless.

To 24 September (01243 781312)

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