The Master and Margarita

One of the myriad of bizarre characters in Complicite’s The Master and Margarita is struggling to get anywhere with his novel about Pontius Pilate because the Jesus figure is “too realistic”. Bulgakov’s novel, part exploration of the creative process, part tour of Stalinist Moscow, part mad love story, rewrites the rulebook and throws realism out of the window.

We can’t seem to get enough at the moment of attempts to film the unfilmable and stage the unstageable. This Christmas, those of us not watching The Hobbit will be watching a boy floating about in a boat with a CGI tiger or an adaptation of Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. One of the attractions of these adaptations is simply to see how the translation between media is achieved. What appears unstageable about Bulgakov’s novel, though, is not the talking cat, the naked flying woman, the historical span, the decapitations – if you know Complicite’s work, you’ll have faith that they can pull off those challenges. The real obstacle lies in the several planes to the story, operating simultaneously. The narrative viewpoint is constantly shifting and we can never quite tell who is in charge.

We start in Moscow where poet Ivan Bezdomny (Richard Katz), is visited by satanic figure Woland (‘the Master’ – played masterfully by Paul Rhys), whose prophetic powers land the writer in an asylum. There he meets another hospitalised writer, the Master in a different guise, who is struggling to write a novel about Pontius Pilate. This novel spills out of the writer’s imagination onto the stage and the story is rewritten in front of us from Pilate’s perspective, played with troubled authority by Tim McMullan. Then there is Woland’s gang (including a randy puppet cat who offers to shag anyone in the front row), which terrorises Moscow, and the Master’s gravity-defying love affair with Margarita. It’s confusing stuff, but it’s possible to connect with this material if you can abandon the need for beginning, middle and end, and a consistent protagonist around whose plight to orientate yourself.

The Master and Margarita is a fantastic technical achievement. Live film and 3D animations by Finn Ross and Luke Halls help to realise Bulgakov’s rich visual world and make Katie Mitchell’s experiments of using film in theatre pale in comparison. Gareth Fry’s sound and Paul Anderson’s lighting also deserves high praise.

This high-tech assault on the senses is coupled with Complicite’s stock-in-trade low-fi visual techniques – a melon is obliterated in place of severed head, and chairs gallop across the stage as horses. In its closing moments the un-amplified voice of Ivan Bezdomny reconnects us with Bulgakov’s novel and we are reminded with a jolt that wherever we have been transported over the past three hours, we have still just been sharing the space with people moving about and talking. Far from feeling like a let-down, though, there is something spectacular in that simplicity.

The Master and Margarita is on at the Barbican until 19 January. For more information and tickets, see the Barbican Theatre website.