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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The Big Sick is well meaning, rather than groundbreaking

There’s a chemistry shortfall between the actors, and some limits to Kumail Nanjiani’s range.

When real romances are adapted for the screen by those involved, the process usually occurs after the flame has gone out. Woody Allen and Diane Keaton were just good friends by the time they made Annie Hall; Julie Delpy and Adam Goldberg had broken up long before they played lovers in 2 Days in Paris. The Big Sick, however, is based on the relationship between its lead actor, Kumail Nanjiani, and his wife, Emily V Gordon (played by Zoe Kazan), who wrote the script together. Their story, a loose retelling of real events, shifts the emphasis away from whether or not their love survived (we know it did) and on to how it endured in the face of unusual odds – with Emily lying comatose in hospital when they had scarcely got to know one another.

The director, Michael Showalter, is not a man scared of spelling out the obvious (during an argument between Kumail and Emily, a road sign behind them reads “Speed bump ahead”) but even he draws the line at putting The Smiths’s “Girlfriend in a Coma” on the soundtrack.

Kumail is a Pakistani comic on the lower rungs of the Chicago stand-up circuit. His family is trying to marry him off to a nice Muslim woman but Kumail is more interested in Emily, a graduate student in psychotherapy who heckles him at a gig one night. His family, given to openly disdaining any relatives with white partners, isn’t aware of her existence, but it hasn’t watched, as we have, the cutesy montage of their courtship.

The couple finish most of their dates with a joke about never seeing one another again. When Emily becomes ill and is placed in a medically induced coma, this running gag becomes unexpectedly resonant, along with Kumail’s choice of date movie: The Abominable Dr Phibes, in which Vincent Price takes revenge on the doctors who let his wife die in surgery. In a piece of timing that adds an extra tartness, Kumail and Emily have broken up shortly before she falls ill. Strictly speaking, they aren’t even in a relationship when Kumail first encounters Emily’s mother, Beth (Holly Hunter), and father, Terry (Ray Romano), at the hospital. Meet the Parents coincides unexpectedly with While You Were Sleeping. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner lurks in the background.

The estrangement might have been definitive were it not for the coma, though the film can’t quite bring itself to acknowledge the helpful part played in the couple’s relationship by a life-threatening medical emergency. In common with anything in which Judd Apatow has a hand (he gets a producing credit here), The Big Sick is in the business of reassurance. Emily mentions that she works with men convicted of domestic violence but the world of the film is one where harm is only ever inflicted inadvertently.

Discomfort surfaces in the two brief scenes that come closest to holding to account Nanjiani’s likeable, mildly neurotic persona. The tremendous Vella Lovell stands out as one of Kumail’s prospective brides, who upbraids him for his cowardice. And Emily rages at him over a perceived betrayal in a scene that would be more persuasive still if the pair seemed like actual lovers rather than just room-mates. There’s a chemistry shortfall between the actors as well as some limits to Nanjiani’s range, which extends from “genial” to “a bit cross”.

He also suffers from the problem, common to stand-ups who become actors, of not always knowing how to integrate material into characterisation. Seinfeld handled it well by showing Jerry getting caught out trying to sneak “bits” into casual conversation, but in The Big Sick the gags often sit on top of the action. The movie’s best joke is Kumail’s response when Terry, who has clearly never met a Muslim before, asks his opinion on 9/11. No man would ever say what he says to the parents of a woman he was hoping to win back, let alone whose life was hanging in the balance, and if we forgive him, it’s only because it’s an ingenious line. It is also one of the thousand or so reasons why The Big Sick is well meaning rather than groundbreaking, and why a Judd Apatow production will never be confused with a Preston Sturges one. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue