The Master and Margarita

James Sharpe.

Simon McBurney’s theatre company Complicate is enjoying its thirtieth anniversary this year and its productions are just as exhilarating as ever.

Its most recent production, The Master and Margarita, has returned to the Barbican for two months after playing there last Spring and going on world tour for most of last year.

It is ‘concept theatre’ at its very best. Far too many productions start with big ideas that get smaller during the rehearsal process, often becoming so compromised that the idea that inspired the production might as well not be there. Here, the overwhelming nature of the technical wizardry and intricate movement of the actors throughout brings the mad world of 1930s Moscow to life.

The play is based on a book written by Mikhail Bulgakov lampooning Stalinist Russia (it was never published in his lifetime). It tells of the Devil’s visit to Moscow (desguised as Professor Woland, an expert in Black Magic) and the havoc he reeks, and the tale of the Master, who has recently written a book about Pontius Pilate and his meeting with the historical Jesus Christ, Yeshua Ha-Nostri, and his lover Margarita.

The book has been recreated on stage almost scene for scene, which is one of the reasons why the play is so long – the first half alone is the best part of two hours. However, for all its length, it never drags. It is true to say that sections could easily have been cut or condensed, but this would have made a more conventional play. One of the key characteristics of Complicate’s The Master and Margarita is that it feels more like a book through which we are being led. In this sense it is not a conventional piece of theatre.

This does not mean it is without criticism. The technical wizardry is wondrous, but the production seems to be a little too reliant on it. In the first sequence, for example, from Professor Woland’s arrival in Moscow to the end of his performance at the Moscow Variety Theatre, there is so much trickery that it occasionally becomes messy, especially when the actors’ microphones were not adjusted swiftly enough. On the other hand, the constant use of film to highlight features of the cast, to create a disconnect between some of the characters, and to give an idea of the overwhelming nature of Moscow and of the Russian state worked well. The technical team behind this play deserve especial praise.

Even so, just as a thought, it does feel slightly odd to have a play in which the central characters bemoan the increasing reliance on technology to be executed with such reliance on it. I’ll leave that with you to ponder.

Behemoth: Photographed in Kiev, Andriyivskyy Descent
Behemoth: Photographed in Kiev, Andriyivskyy Descent

The cast is – with one exception – brilliant. Paul Rhys as the Master has a slightly pale and haunted stage presence mixed with a quiet, precise and ethereal spoken voice which is, at the same time, likeable and ever so slightly disconcerting. It’s this that enables him to execute a thrilling technical feat half-way through the second half. Sinead Matthews is also exhilarating as Margarita who falls not-quite-into-madness as she confronts Woland in order to be reunited with the man she loves. The exception is Behemoth, the uncouth cat companion of Woland. A rich character in the book, he is made foul and sexually explicit in this production, which is more repulsive than frightening and fun.

Complicate’s production deserves two viewings rather than just one. With this in mind, I very much hope it’s not too long before it is revived.

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