Review: The Master and Margarita, Complicite at the Barbican

“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.

Running time: 3 hours 20 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: a hefty £4.50
Booking until 7th April

7 thoughts on “Review: The Master and Margarita, Complicite at the Barbican

  1. No mention of the cat? 😉

    Agreed entirely with your review – impossible to say why, but a stunning and unforgettable production. Our seats in the balcony meant that we missed a lot of the projections on the back wall, but we had a great view of the floor projections which were fantastic And yes, best of all the horse, just breathtaking.

    Far too many great performances to list, but Sinéad Matthews seems to get better with every play she's in, a great presence. Also Tim McMullan – I've seen him many times before in very similar (to each other) comedy-type roles, so it was great to see him do something entirely different and do it so well. His first scene in particular has really stayed with me.

  2. I thought there were lots of great things in this production and some strange decisions. The Cat, Behemoth, completely didn't work for me and lost a lot of the fun of his character in the book. Also, I thought Sinead Matthews was terrible as Margarita, she shouted so much and didn't really connect with the Master. It might have been that her voice was rather annoying, I don't know, but I didn't think she was as good as the Master/Woland actor. The video dominated too much, and they should have kept the simplicity of their terrific floor craft, but a great attempt no doubt. I still wasn't as moved as I could have been and felt that they over-did this production, unlike much of their earlier work.

  3. Completely agree, I also couldn't quite put into words why I enjoyed it so much. After thinking about it I came to a similar conclusion to you that the enjoyment has a lot to do with the visceral effect. The ability to have such an effect is often, I think, what makes truly great theatre.

    I also did very much like the cat…

  4. Just before entering in the theatre my head was burning … I was wondering : will it be as interesting, emotional and satiric Bulgakov's novel, as I perceive it? Desillusion is what I was scary of…
    But, my fear was broken since the play startes. The actor's play was believable (except tha main's actresse's voice which was horrific, as fo me, as well as her "over acting" apceted me), the vision of the Soviet reality of XXth century and the humor… Everything was perfect

    I enjoyed the play))

  5. Thanks for all your comments.
    Rob – it's a measure of how good the whole thing was that the freaky giant puppet cat didn't loom as my primary thought!
    Anonymous – I have to disagree. I thought Matthews was excellent, I really like her as an actress and the choices she is making always seem interested. And I thought the incorporation of video was excellently done.
    Ellen – glad you agree.
    Lena – I haven't read the book but a friend is working his way through it now so I may well borrow it from him.
    Anonymous – thanks.

  6. The book is an incredibly hard act to follow, so kudos for even trying. Personally, I thought the stagecraft in this performance was excellent, with some brilliant scene-to-scene transitions and some lovely video stuff (snow, crowds on the verge of…what?,flying, riding, etc. etc.). I quite like a 'full immersion'use of effects, and in this case they added something rather than detracting or distracting. But I was totally unmoved by the acting in the Pilate/Jesus segment, and the chemistry in the Margarita/Master love story just didn't ring true enough to merit her ghoul-fest hostess marathon. No reflection on the actress, but in my opinion Margarita was miscast (voice, accent, body language, the works)and even had a costume that jarred (Lady Gaga meets Dita von Teese – oh, Lordy – and I'm talking about the zip dress, not the 'nude' part, which was fine…). Pilate, too (I just never got the feeling the fate of Jeshua was a REAL dilemma for him). The master/Woland, on the other hand, had the necessary subtlety.
    The thing is, at rock-bottom level it always has to be about the acting.

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