Mikhall Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, an epic novel which tells of the Devil visiting Moscow and interacting with its inhabitants, is considered to be one of the best novels of the twentieth century. This perhaps makes it a daunting task for any theatre director to grapple with, but in the hands of Complicite and Simon McBurney, Bulgakov’s masterpiece is brought to the Barbican’s stage with force and artistic intensity.
McBurney’s creation is rich with visual spectacle and draws committed performances from its cast. Working with video designer Finn Ross and 3D animator Luke Halls, McBurney’s The Master and Margarita is a triumph of combining acting with video projection that floods and fills every expanse of Es Devlin’s set design. Not only does it transform the Barbican Theatre into Soviet Russia, but it also distorts and twists the perspectives of its audience through projections on walls and floors. The slickness and artistry of projection in performance has informed Complicite’s work for many years but clearly McBurney is in his element – and astounds his audience.
There are countless outstanding performances throughout the evening, although I was particularly drawn to Paul Rhys’s Master and Sinead Matthews’s Margarita. The characters of Master and Margarita became the central point for the audience to hold on to as the city shook and crumbled before our eyes. They might be helpless, and we might know this, but Rhys and Matthews made a formidable duo. Against such strong visual imagery, where at one point Margarita seems to resemble Lady Gaga, the commitment to character was particularly impressive.
As with previous Complicite productions, the heart of the piece lies within the commitment and dedication from the ensemble as a whole. The continual shifting of characters, props and set was fluid. However, it has to be said Blind Summit’s contribution in the form of Behemoth, the Devil’s cat, was particularly disappointing. The whole character of Behemoth, which was operated as a larger-than-life cat puppet, didn’t work amongst the other aesthetic qualities within The Master and Margarita.
The visual style of Complicite’s work drove the production forward. The images of Christ in the form of Yeshua Na-Notsri (Cescar Sorachu) were hauntingly projected against the floor-to-ceiling back wall of the Barbican Theatre. Whilst it is hard to fault the visual elements of the production, it is a show that is difficult to engage with on an emotional level. At no point do we feel completely connected to the story or journey of the characters, and in many respects it is a cold production; we laugh, we spectate, but we never truly invest in the world. This didn’t bother me as such, but with a story this size which shifts in narrative and perspective, some audiences may find it difficult to connect with the characters.
Billed as 195 minutes long you might think that the piece would become tiresome, but aside from a slightly less engaging first half The Master and Margarita slips by with ease. I couldn’t help but feel comfortable whilst watching it, a certain familiarity settled within me. Yet Bulgakov’s story, in its vastness, reminded me of Peter Brook’s 11 and 12, not in its spiritual element but in the way in which Brook took his audience through the story. I remember feeling a calmness and understanding of the work, and this was echoed last night as I watched Complicite’s offering. Perhaps that speaks of our inabilities to see a stage or theatre as a blank canvas that a company or director fills with their own imagery and stories, or perhaps it was just me feeling the rhythm of McBurney’s direction.
It’s a bold adaptation, which at times presents its audience with the messages of Bulgakov’s text in a contemporary and provoking manner, especially when direct address and the house lights and projection showed the audience as impassive spectators. Whilst it’s not without its flaws, The Master and Margarita is an impressive visual spectacle which brings life to Bulgakov’s novel with energy and commitment from its cast and creative team. Certainly a piece of theatre worth attending.
The Master and Margarita is playing at the Barbican Theatre until 7 April. For more information and tickets, see the Barbican Theatre website.