wed 24/07/2024

The Master and Margarita, Barbican Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

The Master and Margarita, Barbican Theatre

The Master and Margarita, Barbican Theatre

A clever adaptation that's visually dazzling but emotionally unengaging

Paul Rhys as The Master and Sinéad Matthews as his redemptive muse MargaritaAll images © Tristram Kenton

The Master and Margarita is a rare beast. Not only is it considered to be one of the greatest novels of the 20th century, it also regularly tops reader-lists of all-time favourite books. So it’s no wonder that, since its publication in 1966, 26 years after the author’s early death, Mikhail Bulgakov’s Soviet-era masterpiece has attracted a steady stream of film-makers and theatre directors.

But their adaptations have so often floundered that one genuinely fears for anyone fearless, or foolhardy, enough to take it on. With its genre-shifting multiple narratives and dense allegorical layers, this is a novel that’s defeated the ambitions of many, including both Roman Polanski and – the mind indeed might boggle – Andrew Lloyd Webber.

But if anyone can harness the novel’s seductive strangeness and dizzying energy – whilst also, of course, forging a cohesive visual narrative – one feels that it might just be Complicite. Headed by Simon McBurney, better known in non-theatre circles as Robert in Rev and as Kreacher in Harry Potter, its ensemble productions regularly deliver on visual spectacle whilst faithfully elucidating the more cerebral thematic concerns of the works on which they're based. It’s a fine balance to play, and under McBurney’s direction this production manages largely, though certainly not wholly, to pull it off.

The passionate love-story of the title characters develops from a beautifully choreographed first encounter

The three separate strands of the book are rather ingeniously interwoven, and we shift with impressive ease between them. We first find ourselves in 1930s Moscow (Patriarch’s Ponds is a bit like Russell Square, we are told) thence swiftly to first-century Jerusalem and the trial of Jesus (Yeshua, played by Cesar Sarachu) presided over by a troubled, migraine-riddled Pontius Pilate (Tim McMullan). The passionate love-story of the title characters develops from a beautifully choreographed first encounter on the streets of Moscow: Paul Rhys’s later shuffling, stammering, quietly tortured Master and Sinéad Matthews’s assured Margarita weave their bodies through a crowded tram and lose each other in the hectic pace of the city, prefacing their later separation.

Master and Margarita © Tristram_KentonRhys doubles up as devil-in-disguise Woland, played in dark glasses and with a goofy set of teeth (in an already highly complex scenario what an earth should we make of this intriguing "alter-ego" doubling?). The accent and the overbite might just occasionally make you think of a slightly more sinister, albeit rather more controlled, Mad Professor à la Jerry Lewis. In fact, Woland provides much of the comedy that is otherwise lacking in this adaptation, which, though borrowing heavily from vaudeville  (even before Woland's "variety show" there’s a mike-stand stage right where Clive Mendus’s Berlioz and Richard Katz’s Bezdomny perform a little routine) remains rather sober.  

Behemoth the “hog-sized” cat will almost certainly divide lovers of the book. Here he is a mangy puppet with glowing red eyes, manipulated and voiced by members of the company and depicted as a coarse, over-sexed cockney bruiser. He certainly stands out as part of Woland’s retinue, as both Koroviev (Angus Wright) and Azazello (Ajay Naidu) seem a little underplayed and undifferentiated.


Meanwhile, the set, by Es Devlin, is cavernously dark and spartan - a hospital bed in one corner, a vertical Portakabin in the other. The Portakabin serves as the tram that beheads Berlioz in a perfect bit of stagecraft that involves the splitting of a watermelon – as we might expect from Complicite, the stagecraft throughout is impressive.Cesar Sarachu (Yeshua), left, Tim McMullan (Pontius Pilate) middle, and Clive Mendus (Berlioz), front The most memorable bit of theatre magic, however, comes near the end where the Master and Margarita make off on a horse. Positioned on the floor, their images are projected onto the floor-to-ceiling backdrop, as if astride a galloping horse made up of chairs projected to form a huge equine apparition that coalesces into shape as the company play their part as chair-puppeteers. And when Margarita flies over Moscow, where she again remains largely motionless while black-and-white film footage of the city whizzes past and she is projected onto it. Finn Ross must be applauded for his deft video work where, also under his direction, a wintery Moscow becomes a heat-drenched Jerusalem in the blink of an eye, as swiftly as the soundscape changes, moving from Shostakovich to Grieg, from Tom Waits to the Rolling Stones. 

There is little sense of tonal shifts and variations in texture

One is left impressed by such dazzling visual trickery, the signature of any Complicite production, as well as the masterful handling of dense layers of allusive (and elusive) narrative. What one might lose in any such adaptation, one perhaps gains here by making the political satire more immediately obvious – one cannot miss the huge projection of Stalin.

Even so, it’s difficult to feel wholly engaged by this production. It’s fast-paced, for sure, and the play’s 195 minutes go by pretty swiftly. But though the backdrop scenery changes at a pace, there is little sense of tonal shifts and variations in texture. What’s more, the lack of emotional investment (how much, in the end, do we really care whether the Master and Margarita are reunited?) makes for a dénouement that’s just a little flat.  

One is left impressed by such dazzling visual trickery, the signature of any Complicite production


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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