“Master and Margarita”

adapted from the novel by Mikhail Bulgakov

at the Barbican Centre, Wednesday 2nd January 2013

I only read Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita for the first time this summer (actually after being gutted at having missed the previous run of the show without knowing it was returning and wanting to see why Complicite would adapt such a text) and raced through it within a few days. Now, I’ll happily admit this isn’t the ideal way to approach such a dense, complex novel, but at the time I was solely concerned with turning the next page to see where we were taken next; I hope to return to it again in the next year or so. Anyway, I digress. What’s so astonishing about Complicite’s version is that it manages to maintain the large bulk of Bulgakov’s epic narrative without sacrificing any of his startling philosophical discussions and wide-ranging themes. It’s a production which does pretty much everything I want a piece of theatre to do.

There’s no point in me going into the narrative here because to do so would be a waste of time and energy considering there are plenty of brilliant synopses on the internet (a particularly good one is on the show’s website: http://www.manuscriptsdontburn.org/799/). I also won’t attempt to dissect or consider in any great detail what Bulgakov himself has managed to achieve in his novel and the astonishingly complex themes he wades through, as I have neither the intelligence nor the time to do so (and there is a wealth of wonderful criticism on the novel anyway). Instead, this piece will consider the ways in which Simon McBurney and his team have transposed the themes present in the original into a theatrical setting.

The most striking visual aspect of the production involves perhaps the best use of projections I’ve seen in a piece of theatre (it’ll soon become an awards category, mark my words). The vast floor and back wall of the Barbican stage can covered completely by sprawling images showing snowstorms or a satellite image of Moscow, but just as frequently the projections are used subtly to mark room layouts and even as a form of lighting. Added to this is the innovation of using an overhead camera to project certain scenes onto the back wall, so that the image of Margarita falling from her window, for example, becomes a theatrical reality played out virtually. We are also allowed multiple perspectives, as those of us sat higher up in the theatre are able to see both floor and wall, allowing us to see both reality and fiction played out simultaneously. Thus Bulgakov’s questioning of what makes a story true is played out in front of our eyes.

Similarly, the dichotomies which Bulgakov is perpetually presenting in his novel (faith vs atheism, sanity vs insanity etc) get aestheticised through a split-screen effect, whereby events ostensibly occurring within the same space are placed on either side of the stage, for example during the multiple decapitations during the show or when a scene is moved across the stage to show the differing perspectives of two different characters.

At one point, the joke is made that at some point in the future, we will have access to hoards of information “at the push of a button”, something which is heightened by the grids and bright white lines of Finn Ross’ video design (aided by Luke Halls’ animation). The past, present and future become intermingled so that even when we are witnessing the sentencing of Jesus, images and ideas from our own future are unavoidable. By contrasting these hi-res images with Es Devlin’s – for want of a better word – soviet set design, the two worlds are throughout fighting against one another and trying to gain a foothold within our consciousness.

As the space changes and boundaries are shifted by the blueprint projected onto the stage, so too does the way in which people move from one area to another. Some scenes are static, such as the Pilate/Jesus ones, taking place on a thin diagonal and focussing on no more than the text. Elsewhere, the stage is chaotic, as we are transported to the busy streets of Moscow, or eerily sparse  as when Margarita lays naked in the middle of the floor (another thing about this production is that the striking images of the book are beautifully recreated on stage). So, as the context and paradigms shift as characters enter and exit certain stages of awareness, our minds turn inwards, considering the way in which we may change when in different social spheres.

The darkly absurdist humour of Bulgakov’s original is also given just enough stage time, and is embodied brilliantly by a group of actors who take on a multitude of roles. There is a self-awareness, a theatricality, imbued in all of them, as they both maintain truth and exist wholly within the world around them. Paul Rhys as both Woland (i.e. ‘Satan’) and the Master (a tortured writer) flits easily between the two (it only dawned on me halfway through the first half that this was the case). His frantic energy as the Master is subverted wholly into a dry, humourless power as Woland. His opposite in most ways is Richard Katz’s Ivan Nikolayich. He is the beating, human heart of the piece and represents us on stage; baffled, exhausted, amazed.

What Simon McBurney’s production does particularly well is to be both modern and postmodern simultaneously, capturing the Zeitgeist of both the time of initial publishing and today. Some of the images and ideas presented by Bulgakov are somewhat archaic to our twenty-first century eyes and ears, but they are presented in such a way that allows them to be questioned, critiqued and reconsidered. Master and Margarita is a production which worms its way into your deep subconscious, finding its way into your dreams and imprinting itself on the more secluded parts of your brain. It’s capricious, it’s confusing, it’s complex. But my god it’s beautiful.

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