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
ANN RONAN PICTURES/PRINT COLLECTOR/GETTY IMAGES
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The amazing lawnmower man

How ex-bank manager Clive Gravett became obsessed with Edwin Beard Budding, the inventor of the lawnmower.

It’s midday in the Museum of Gardening. Clive Gravett, the founder, curator and owner of most of the exhibits here, is pondering a relatively unimportant item in his collection: a glass tube, about a foot long. “Blown glass,” says Gravett, leaning in close, “so it’s probably early Victorian.” This, he explains to a curious visitor, is the work of George Stephenson, the “father of railways” and inventor of an early miner’s safety lamp. It’s a device for straightening cucumbers.

Stephenson’s triumphs are listed on a plaque nearby, but this museum, located in a corner of a garden centre in Hassocks, West Sussex, is one of few places on Earth where a luminary of Stephenson’s stature must stand in the shadow of a more exceptional figure. The Museum of Gardening is a shrine to Gravett’s hero Edwin Beard Budding, who in 1830 made one of the great intellectual leaps of the 19th century. He invented the lawnmower.

Budding was one of those bright-eyed tinkerers so common in the 1800s – a “machinist”, according to his epitaph. Legend has it that he was sitting one day at a cloth-cutting apparatus, watching a bladed cylinder travel over wool and cleanly remove the nap. He glanced out of the window to where men were working a lawn with scythes, and had a sudden moment of inspiration. Surely this cutting cylinder could be used just as easily on grass as on cloth?

In that instant, the lawnmower was born. “And it’s barely changed to this day,” explains Gravett, a sinewy man in his early sixties with icy blue eyes that thaw when he gets excited. “Compare it to the fine-turf mowers of today. It’s the same thing. You have a roller, a cutting cylinder, and a drive. That’s his design.”

Gravett was destined to fall for Budding. The son of farm labourers, he wanted to follow his father into horticulture. “I planned to stay on the farm but my mother said, ‘You don’t want to end up like us, living on tithed property.’ She gave me a bit of a push.” Instead, he went into banking and – smart, energetic and blessed with an unforced quirkiness – rose to be branch manager.

“Thirty-five years later I was very disillusioned,” he says. “I’d seen a lot of colleagues waylaid by stress, and I thought: ‘No, you’re not going to do that to me.’ We got our branch to the top of the list and I resigned, and accused [then RBS chief executive] Fred Goodwin of corporate bullying in my resignation letter.”

He then started up a small horticultural business. It was while tending the gardens of a retired solicitor in Ditchling that he discovered four old mowers in the garage. “He said he wanted to dump them,” Gravett remembers. “I took them away, found there was an old lawnmower club, and it went from there.”

Gravett is cagey about how many lawnmowers he owns, but it’s somewhere around a hundred. That’s not many, he suggests, given that antique lawnmowers are hardly pricey. It might seem excessive, though, given that there’s no lawn on his property. Many of his mowers reside at the museum. They are huge and bulky and strangely insectoid in the 19th century, with motors coming in about 1904, and then the weight drops away until the Flymo arrives in the 1960s – a gorgeous piece of domestic futurism, more manta ray than machine. “A lot of collectors are quite funny about Flymos,” he observes.

Gravett loves to talk about the magic of restoring a lawnmower. “Some Ransomes mowers can be difficult to date,” he says, “until you strip the cutting blade back to the metal and see 1907 or 1911, and you’re the first person to see that since it was put together.” His real passion, however, is research. It’s the research that brought him to Budding.

Born in 1796, the illegitimate son of a farmer (“his mother was probably the housemaid”), Budding was a clever child, training in carpentry and then engineering. As well as the lawnmower, he designed an early pepper-box pistol, and in the 1840s, a few years before his death, he invented the screw-adjustable spanner. None of these made him much money: they arrived too early. His lawnmower was so ahead of its time that he had to test it at night – “possibly because of prying eyes”, Gravett says, laughing, “but possibly because people would think he was stupid”.

Today, Gravett remembers Budding though his museum and charity, the Budding Foundation, which supports young people across education, training and sport. He is still looking out for lawnmowers, and urges everybody he meets to check their shed for forgotten treasure.

There is one machine he doesn’t have in his collection: a Budding. “Nobody has a Budding,” he sighs. “He probably made a few thousand, but the wars gobbled up scrap metal. Even so, I like to think one might be found.”

But Gravett managed to get close to his hero a few years ago when he took a trip to Dursley in Gloucestershire, where Budding is buried. “Nobody had written about his grave, so I decided to find it. I researched the churchyard, and the council provided me with a map to the plots.” The border fence had been moved twenty years earlier after six graves were taken away. When he found Budding’s plot, it was right up against the new fence. “We’re lucky we didn’t lose him.”

The grave, like Budding’s legacy, showed signs of neglect. It was overgrown and covered with brambles. Gravett lights up at the memory. “I cleared all the brambles off, and then, since I happened to have a 100-year-old lawnmower in the back of the truck, I hefted it over the fence.

“I mowed as close as I could to his resting place.” 

This article first appeared in the 05 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain