Myth-maker

Simon McBurney is a match for Mikhail Bulgakov's fiendishly complex play.

Here's a challenge: stage bits of the New Testament alongside anti-Stalinist satire; throw in some flying witches, a Faustian pact and magic potions. Oh, and a really big cat. "It's undoable," was Andrew Lloyd Webber's verdict on adapting Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita for the stage. "It's just too difficult for an audience to contemplate." Which hasn't stopped a whole host of people cramponing up this theatrical Everest, of which the latest is Simon McBurney and Complicite at the Barbican.

True, it's a fractured labyrinth of stories and styles; we flip from magic realism to allegory to mordant satire. The devil and his outsize familiar pay a visit to Stalinist Russia. At the same time the story - of uncertain parentage - of Pontius Pilate and Yeshua Ha-Notsri (Jesus of Nazareth) unfolds. As does the redemptive love story between the "Master," who is a writer, and Margarita. But when all this is grounded in the physical discipline that Complicite bring to bear in their work, anything is possible.

In their chaste restraint in the matters of props and scenery, the company are the heirs apparent to Peter Brook. With fluid legerdemain the cast's bodies bend equally to forging a Gethsamane or a Moscow tram: their expressivity puts one in mind of the silent movie. They perform magical role switches - a character is sloughed off to reveal another underneath - which I for one did not see coming. This show lights up Bulgakov's labyrinth for us, but darkness and confusion is always snaking just around the corner (perhaps not entirely under the company's control). Moody flurries of Shostakovich underscore our misgivings.

If all this sounds a bit of a pious bore there's some exuberant slapstick to boot. With Complicite you get the impression that the clown has never entirely left the building.

Where McBurney parts company with the Brook ascetics is in enthusiastic embrace of technology, as extension to the actors' protean bodies. Lighting by Paul Anderson, video by Finn Ross and 3D animation from Luke Halls combine to breathtaking effect. Cameras trained on the actors give us giant close-ups or spectacular aerial perspectives; they mess with point of view and fragment the performers - handy for conjuring severed heads - or multiply them into Eisenstein-style crowds. We zoom in on a set of co-ordinates in an enormous Google Earth Moscow, and we pan out on the whole city, suggesting surveillance both state and supernatural. There are illusions to bewitch and dazzle: actors plummet from tall buildings or gallop on horseback into the stars.

Within the ensemble there are cherishable performances, in particular from Paul Rhys as the devil, sporting a mouthful of flashing metal and a Matrix mac; and Sinéad Matthews as Margarita. With her severe Louise Brooks bob and her husky, vulnerable voice (it has a shucked quality, as though its quick has been exposed) she's the anima that drives the scene, and the muse that drives the love story.

The play tests and flexes the audience's tolerance. It is, perhaps, too long. Even the doughty Matthews starts to look as though hanging around naked on stage, painted blue (it's a long story) is not all it's cracked up to be. But in the main McBurney matches Bulgakov's literary achievement, toe-to-toe, with a theatrical one. He is surely one of our most powerful contemporary myth-makers.

"Manuscripts don't burn," says the devil at one point in the play, seemingly affirming the power and longevity of the written word. But nothing is quite this straightforward chez Bulgakov. In the show's bible belt, Jesus protests that Matthew the Levite, the original unreliable narrator, has made up much of his written account. Pilate strikes a note of warning, "People might believe this nonsense," he says, "for years to come."

Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita - a plea for art, imagination and compassion in the face of intolerance - itself fell victim to the Soviet repressive machinery. The devil, in this version by Edward Kemp, remarks that the Muscovites "remind me of their predecessors. And their successors." Nowadays Russian samizdat takes the form of parodic poetry videos: "Citizen's Poet" lampoons Putin's presidency and his stage-managed photo-opportunism, "skiing, dancing, the whole nine yards."

Or it did until the final upload on 5 March, after Putin's landslide victory had turned the heat up on such satire. Plus ça change.

His master's voice: Simon McBurney. Photograph: Getty Images
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13 political statements from the Oscars 2017

In the age of Trump, Hollywood got satirical.

Yes, it’s that time of year again: when Hollywood’s best and brightest come together to celebrate themselves, and maybe throw in an oh-so-vaguely left-wing comment about how “we need the arts right now more than ever.” But in the era of Donald Trump, did things get more caustic at the 89th Academy Awards? 

Here’s a round-up of the big political shout-outs of the night.

1. “This is being watched live by millions of people in 225 countries that now hate us.” - host Jimmy Kimmel, above, in his opening monologue.

2. “I want to say thank you to President Trump. I mean, remember last year when it seemed like the Oscars were racist? That's gone, thanks to him.” - Jimmy Kimmel, in his opening monologue.

3. “In Hollywood, we don't discriminate against people based on what countries they come from. We discriminate against them based on their age and weight.” - Jimmy Kimmel, in his opening monologue.

4. “Some of you get to come on this stage and make a speech that the president of the United States will tweet about in all-caps during his 5am bowel movement.”- Jimmy Kimmel, in his opening monologue.

5. “Meryl Streep has phoned it in for more than 50 films over the course of her lacklustre career. She wasn’t even in a movie this year – we just wrote her name in out of habit. Please join me in giving Meryl Streep a totally undeserved round of applause. The highly overrated Meryl Streep, everyone.” Jimmy Kimmel, referencing Trump’s comment that Streep (below) is “overrated”.

6. “Nice dress by the way – is that an Ivanka?” - Jimmy Kimmel to Meryl Streep

7. “Now it’s time for something that is very rare today: a president that believes in both arts and sciences.” - Jimmy Kimmel, while introducing Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs

8. “Inclusion makes us all stronger.” - Cheryl Boone Isaacs

9. “This is for all the immigrants” - Alessandro Bertolazzi, above right, accepting the award for Best Makeup and Hairstyling for Suicide Squad.

10. “Flesh-and-blood actors are migrant workers. We travel all over the world. We construct families, we build life, but we cannot be divided. As a Mexican, as a Latin American, as a migrant worker, as a human being, I'm against any form of wall that wants to separate us.” - Gael Garcia Bernal, while presenting the award for Best Animated Feature

11. “My absence is out of respect for the people of my country and from the other six nations who have been disrespected by the inhumane law which bans immigrants' entry into the U.S. Dividing the world into the 'us and our enemies' categories creates fear, a deceitful justification for aggression and war.” - The Salesman director Asghar Farhadi, who boycotted the ceremony over Trump's Muslim travel ban. His award was accepted on his behalf by former Nasa scientist Firouz Naderi and engineer/astronaut Anousheh Ansari, above.

12. “We are so grateful to audiences all over the world who embraced this film with this story of tolerance being more powerful than fear of the other.” - Zootopia director Rich Moore, while accepting the award for best animated feature

13. “All you people out there who feel like your life is not reflected, the Academy has your back, the ACLU has your back. For the next four years we will not leave you alone, we will not forget you.” - Barry Jenkins (above) while accepting the award for Best Adapted Screenplay.

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Now listen to Anna discussing the Oscars on the NS pop culture podcast, SRSLY:

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.