Tag Archives: Religion

“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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“Monkey Bars” by Chris Goode

at Warwick Arts Centre, Friday 5th October 2012

Ok, I admit it. I’ve hardly started my attempts at New Criticism very well. Granted, the proof of that metaphorical pudding will be in its eating, but I should have probably attempted to turn up to the first show post-epiphany sober, free-thinking and awake. I was none of these things. Following a manic few days and an evening enjoying drinks and chats with new members of the Warwick Drama gang, my mind fizzing and buzzing with fresh energy and exciting ideas (and the remnants of a discussion about the next Artistic Director of the National), I was probably not in the best position to be viewing and critically responding to Chris Goode’s Monkey Bars. Nonetheless, in order to attempt to regain a modicum of professionalism, the piece has been reread this morning and following some note scribbling, I’m now better positioned to get some words typed up.

I guess, in a way, I straddle the line between Goode’s broad suggestions of what it means to be an “adult” and a “child”, in that I am considered old enough to make my own choices and take responsibility, but, by and large, I am not listened to or considered by society. Until we buy into establishment ideals and become self-interested consumers, we are not seen as “fully functioning” and are described variously as “leeches”, “lazy” and “idealistic”. Monkey Bars, therefore (which takes children’s conversations verbatim and puts them in the mouths of adults), speaks to me as both subject and object. The overall effect is one of charm and joy, but beneath the warm exterior there are some darker themes and a bubbling anger.

Of particular interest is Goode’s decision to have the actors speak not in children’s voices but as themselves, which does a few things. First, it makes the words the focus. In a world which throws images and emotions at children constantly, this forces us to listen to what’s being said rather than how. True, we laugh at the content and the multiple uses of the word “like”, but fundamentally the words are of paramount importance. I’d be interested to hear the original recordings to see how much intonation has changed in performance. My guess would be that Goode has allowed actors a bit of freedom to change inflection (or at least more freedom than, say Alecky Blythe would give) so as to elucidate meaning and discover moments of comedy or poignancy. I say this due to the inclusion of a “job interview” scene, which sees a panel of children questioning another about what superhero she’d like to be. Here, the tone of the three interviewers is a little harsh, mimicking that of a panel of managers, including an aggressiveness I doubt was there in the real recording. Some may say this dilutes the impression given and to an extent changes the meaning of what’s being said, but it goes back to the idea that the words are key.

The choice to have the company speak as adults was, I imagine, hardly a difficult one for Goode, for to do that would be nigh-on suicidal. It’s true that, as one child says, adults are louder and so get listened to more. Doing this gives the words a gravitas which they wouldn’t have if the actors mimicked a child’s voice. We as an audience have to interrogate why this happens, and come to the startling conclusion that it is not, as we’d like to believe, about the content, but about all our prejudices which float around this.

Naomi Dawson’s design also straddles the gap between mature and playful. A green mat could be both turf and a playground floor simultaneously, whilst pouffe-sized illuminated white cubes references modern designer living and play dens. They shine throughout, as during the darkened scene changes they look like bright Tetris shapes floating in the dark, rearranging themselves into their next image. At the beginning of the piece, the six actors come onto stage in white shirts and black trousers, and it seems a school-child look has been opted for, but as soon as they don black business jackets, the line is once again blurred. The situations in which they find themselves – a smart bar, a fine restaurant – are therefore not incongruous with the characters they are playing.

Though Goode is not doing anything blatantly political, there’s something extremely subversive about Monkey Bars, essentially suggesting that if we listened to children (and those with childish ideas) more, we may progress more as a nation. At one point, it is suggested that wars should be stopped (“game over”) and at another one boy gives a pretty watertight argument against the monarchy. More than that, however, the production asks why we differentiate between these ideas arbitrarily, and why someone like, say, David Cameron, is given more credence with his pig-headed and regressive ideas than a child who just wants to play. One thing which is often said of artists is that we (they) stay as children forever, never failing to question and inquire, constantly wishing to play and following a determination to explore. It is artists who change things and shift ideas, and if it’s true that they are children, then it follows that children are artists. In our approach to public policy and government, then, there’s an implication in Monkey Bars that we should be more playful. We should be unafraid to make mistakes.

Alongside the political dimension in the very notion of listening to children, there is exploration here of the idea of prejudice. The children are asked to talk about gender and religion, demonstrating in these scenes just how much we condition our offspring to believe what we believe. It suggests a leaning towards nurture in the nature/nurture debate, as it’s clear these characters are just regurgitating the ideas of the adults around them. True, they’re only complaining that girls “kick weak” or that “boys are gross”, but its obvious the gender divide is already strongly entrenched at this young age.

I think it’s worth considering, too, the rise of (popular) verbatim theatre over the past few years, and its relation to Monkey Bars. I’ll try to find time to write about this more at some point, but my brain is currently wondering whether there’s a link between the popularisation of verbatim theatre and Zizek’s discussion of problems with The Real. Zizek argues that “The pursuit of the Real…equals total annihilation, a (self)destructive fury within which the only way to trace the distinction between the semblance and the Real is, precisely, to STAGE it in a fake spectacle.” I.e, in attempting as a western capitalist society to become more in touch with an idea of “reality” which has become more and more difficult to attain and understand, we turn to staged events which feel extremely raw in order to regain this basic knowledge. In the case of verbatim theatre, therefore, we fool ourselves into thinking that what we are watching is perhaps more “real” that it actually is. On one hand, this makes the whole concept of this style of performance problematic, as it merely feeds an underlying inability to separate ‘the Real’ from ‘reality’. On the other hand, however, it helps us see that a sensory reality is able to be dissociated from an authentic truth through our awareness that what we are seeing on stage can never be the only way of showing events. I don’t quite know where Monkey Bars fits into all this, except that the dislocation of the children’s words and adult voices represents a similar kind of merging of realities which has been experienced since 9/11. As I say, it’s early days on what I think about this whole problem at the moment, but give me time to mull it over a bit longer and I’ll see what I can come up with.

These blends of reality and the Real, adult and child, playful and serious all give Monkey Bars its charming, semi-Brechtian feel. At every stage, we have to stop ourselves from allowing our minds to run away with ideas as we remember the words currently being spoken were articulated by a child who often feels like they’re not listened to. Goode and his company invite us to think about these experiences after the show, considering them in more depth, but whilst in the theatre we must listen. It’s the least we can do.

“13” by Mike Bartlett

at the Olivier Theatre, Thursday 29th December 2011

“The more you know, the harder you will find it to make up your mind” goes Tim Minchin’s “anthem to ambivalence” The Fence. In an increasingly divided world, which sees everything as black or white, the grey area in between is sometimes the most interesting and the most fulfilling. Mike Bartlett’s extraordinary and multitudinous new play 13 fights this case whilst at the same time rallying behind the idea of belief, imploring us to fight for a cause and resist the forces of blandness society struggles so hard to impose upon us. Thea Sharrock’s production is a smorgasbord of spectacle and yet a marvel of simplicity.

We are in central London, among many intertwining storylines and characters. The two central voices come from a female Conservative Prime Minister (Geraldine James) and a messiah-type figure in John (Trystan Gravelle), the former of whom defends her ‘considered’ approach to politics while the other rises up through a mini-internet revolution to become the voice of the people, fighting for freedom of speech and idealism. Around this central story there are dozens of other tales of love, loss, parenthood and faith which all share the theme of belief and ignorance.

It is not hard to see that this is the same mind that came up with Earthquakes in London, but there have been some improvements made. Where Earthquakes felt a little too messy, even though the stories tried hard to be entwined, 13 goes all out on the haphazardness, not holding back anything and revelling in a confusion of voices. There are no ‘unreal’ aspects to this play either as there were in the former; this is merely a ‘hyper-real’ representation of our own reality, drawing out the most deplorable and exciting aspects of the new way of the world. Yes, it is sometimes a little unbelievable, but is entirely this idealism which Bartlett is trying to capture; in order to achieve a better future, we must make the impossible possible.

Although Bartlett seems to lay out the cause for idealism and belief, arguing this is better than thinking nothing at all, the final thirty minutes turn this on its head, showing that no one is entirely morally clean and we are all hypocrites – we must therefore be cautious when creating role models, rather embracing the faults of a whole group and using them to our advantage. Everyone is corrupt to an extent – governments, Julian Assange, Ghandi, and not one of us nor any political system is perfect.

Thea Sharrock’s staging is fast-paced and dynamic, mirroring Bartlett’s breakneck play. She draws out the human aspects of these stories whilst making clear political and cultural comments. Tom Scutt’s huge cuboid set becomes a space for socialising, fighting and playing, and gives hints towards those ‘black boxes’ we hear about, holding information about all of us. Adrian Johnston and Mark Henderson’s music and lighting add to the epic qualities of the production and are just as confused and layered as the play itself.

Some strong performances bring the text to life, and each remains solidly human; Adam James is well placed in his comfort zone as a misogynistic solicitor, while Kirsty Bushell and Davood Ghadami display touching qualities as an archetypal couple. Danny Webb is both disturbing and fascinating as the atheist confidante to Geraldine James’ privately passionate but publicly cold Prime Minister. Gravelle’s performance as John, however, steals the show, remaining ever elusive due to his calmness but remaining ingenious, brave and  inspiring. He is the leader we all long for.

To those who criticise Bartlett’s play for being too messy, I say this: you’re going to have to learn to live with it. As our world becomes ever more confusing and the number of heard voices increases, this style of multi-layered, collaborative and somewhat confused play is only going to become more popular. The well-made and carefully crafted play doesn’t mirror our difficult and postmodern world, and as we have to deal with excess in everyday life, theatre must respond to it. 13 is ingenious in its variety, tackling huge, almost incomprehensible questions, but in doing so it asks each and every one of us to interrogate our own beliefs and values and opens up a discourse which must and will take place.

“Romeo and Juliet” by William Shakespeare

at The Courtyard Theatre, Tuesday 18th August 2010

One thing which puts Rupert Goold above many other directors in the game at the moment is his ability to mix music and sound into productions seamlessly, making sure they are justified and create dramatic tension. In this production of Romeo and Juliet, Goold incorporates many tableaux and movement pieces, but unlike Michael Boyd’s recent Antony and Cleopatra, they do not take away but in fact add to the words already on the page.

As most reviewers have commented, Goold incorporates a great deal of religious imagery and references in this production. Whilst this creates some striking visual images and allows for deep, rumbling music, this does not seem to be the main aspect which differentiates this Romeo and Juliet from others. What makes this special is the performances from Sam Troughton as Romeo and Mariah Gale as Juliet. Their roles have been seemingly subverted; the usual ‘innocent children’ interpretation has been swapped for one which makes the two leads far more rational. Their eyes do not meet on the dance floor, but Troughton makes a decision that Juliet is a girl who might just satisfy his lustful feelings.

Although it may sound odd that the word lust is being used in a review of Romeo and Juliet, it is this raw emotion that makes this production more special. The famous speeches are not spoken in earnest tones or whispered tongues, but frankly and openly. Troughton and Gale capture the essence of what it is to be a teenager perfectly, dressed in hoodies and tracksuit bottoms, trying to always get one up on their parents. This Romeo and this Juliet were not made for the doublet-clad world of their parents.

The rest of the company, dressed in Elizabethan attire, prove that ensemble work is definitely the way forward. Jonjo O’Neill is an erratic Mercutio, and Richard Katz brings a crazed tyranny to the role of Lord Capulet. Noma Dumezweni as the Nurse and Forbes Masson as Friar Lawrence both take control of the play with guts, guiding us through the twists and turns of the relationship between the two families.

Tom Scutt’s iron and stone set lends an ethereal air to the play, and the striking projections on the back wall allow us to move from emotion to emotion thoughtlessly. Light and sound by Howard Harrison and Adam Cork respectively brings the text viscerally into the 21st Century and choreography by Georgina Lamb gives the entire production energy and fire.

This is what we expect from Romeo and Juliet. Whilst there are aspects of this production which focus on love, it takes the opinion that Shakespeare wrote about passion in all forms, and how it causes us to act irrationally. The semi-coup-de-theatre at the end, as the heads of the two families enter in modern dress, suggesting a dream-world, shows that the action of the play could just as easily take place now as when it was first written. Goold’s Romeo and Juliet will not be forgotten in a hurry.