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
Photo: Getty
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Radio as shelter: Grenfell Tower was too frightening to look at

No song seemed to fit the mood on Hayes FM.

“Amidst all this horror, I hope to bring you some light relief. Here’s James Taylor.” Two days after the Grenfell Tower fire, a popular community station a little west of the incident was uncertain what note to strike.

The repeated ads for alarms detecting carbon-monoxide leaks (“this silent killer”) and tips on how to prevent house fires (“Don’t overwhelm your sockets and cause a spark”) sounded perhaps a little overassertive, but then the one for a day-long course focusing on resisting gender stereotyping (“Change the narrative”) felt somewhat out of place. And no song seemed to fit. James Taylor’s “Shower the People” turned out OK, but the Cranberries’ “The Icicle Melts” was unceremoniously faded out mid-flow.

This does often happen on Hayes FM, though. There are times when the playlist is patently restless, embodying that hopeless sensation when you can’t settle and are going through tracks like an unplugged bath – Kate Bush too cringey, T-Rex too camp – everything reminding you of some terrible holiday a couple of years ago. Instead, more ads. Watch your salt intake. Giving up smoking might be a good idea. Further fire safety. (“Attach too many appliances and it could cause an overload and that could cause a fire. Fire kills.”)

Then a weather report during which nobody could quite bring themselves to state the obvious: that the sky was glorious. A bell of blue glass. The morning of the fire – the building still ablaze – I had found three 15-year-old boys, pupils at a Latimer Road school that stayed closed that day because of the chaos, sitting in their uniforms on a bench on the mooring where I live, along the towpath from the tower.

They were listening to the perpetual soft jangle of talk radio as it reported on the situation. “Why the radio?” I asked them, the sight of young people not focused on visuals clearly unusual. “It’s too frightening to look at!” they reasoned.

Radio as shelter. As they listened, one of them turned over in his hand a fragment of the tower’s cladding that he must have picked up in the street on the way over – a sticky-charcoaled hack of sponge, which clung like an insect to his fingers whenever he tried to drop it. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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