“It’s just words, it’s just another story”
As I left the Barbican after seeing Complicite’s take on The Master and Margarita, I thought to myself that was simply extraordinary but I have no idea why and tweeted something to that effect. I couldn’t really explain it in any kind of meaningful way and in some ways even if I could, it still wouldn’t do it justice. Adapted from the novel written in secret by Mikhail Bulgakov during Stalin’s repressive regime that has long been considered an unstageable piece of literature, it therefore seems an apt choice for Simon McBurney and the highly imaginative and ambitious Complicite company to take on as their latest challenge.
Visually, it is a completely stunning piece of work with some of the best incorporation of projections I’ve ever seen. Their scale is massive, filling the expanse of the back wall of the Barbican’s main stage, yet there’s an intimacy to them as well as the actors interact with them in clever ways and they continually draw the audience in. McBurney wisely keeps much of the rest of the staging on a minimalist level, utilising an almost balletic physicality of considerable grace and beauty. And the production needs this pared-back simplicity as the story it is telling is a complex, multi-layered one.
On the one hand, Satan visits 1930s Moscow where he causes havoc amongst Russian society, particularly a group of writers and intellectuals including the Master, who is despairing at the rejection of his latest historical novel. And on the other, we see the subject of that novel, Pontius Pilate working through the remorse and regret at the Jerusalem trial of Yeshua Ha-Notsri, Jesus the Nazarene. We also see the relationship between the Master and his devoted lover Margarita, and then a crazy-ass journey into the supernatural realm. It is fantastical, it is dense, it is overwhelming, it is relentless, but it is also sharply satirical of Stalin’s Russia which provided a useful anchor for me in the flights of fancy.
Because it was frequently so obtuse, I can’t say that it truly gripped me on a truly emotionally engaging level, but it did tap into something more visceral. I found myself inexplicably moved at several moments: the creation of a galloping horse was simply incredible and has to be seen to be believed, Margarita’s dizzying turn at the nightmarish Spring Ball was deeply affecting and the quiet grace of Pontius’ agony and its redemptive conclusion was just beautiful. And ultimately that did it for me: I certainly didn’t ‘get’ it all but it really didn’t matter for me in the final analysis. Sinéad Matthews’ stripped Margarita, Paul Rhys’ duelling Master and Devil and Tim McMullan’s Pontius all gave great performances, but it really was a powerfully strong ensemble show with Angus Wright, Richard Katz, Henry Pettigrew and Tamzin Griffin shining out for me.
I hadn’t read the book before, though I’ve slowly been becoming acquainted with Bulgakov’s theatrical output, so perhaps others will approach this show from a different angle. But from not knowing anything about it beforehand and coming out like I felt I’d no idea what had happened, something about it worked its way into my subconscious and struck a definite chord. Some people don’t like that feeling of ambiguity that often comes from challenging theatre that doesn’t always provide easy answers or follow a pre-defined track of story-telling. And it’s not something I have to say I’m immediately drawn to myself, but when it is performed with this much professionalism and with this level of care and attention, it is hard to deny its power as a piece of the most intriguing theatre, which whilst expensive and at times demanding, definitely felt worth it.