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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In Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt seems to absorb the spirit of the whistleblower

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard. It is reassuring that a film in which people are spied can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable.

Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning 2014 documentary Citizenfour captured the precise moment at which Edward Snowden turned whistleblower after quitting his job at the NSA. Is there room for another film on the same subject? Oliver Stone’s fictionalised account, Snowden, would suggest not. In effect, it admits defeat from the get-go by using the making of Citizenfour as a framing device, incorporating flashbacks to show what led Snowden to commit the security breach that exposed the extent of US government surveillance. Cooped up in a Hong Kong hotel room with him as he spills the beans are Poitras (Melissa Leo) and the Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), who put on their best ­listening faces and try to forget that all of the most interesting scenes are happening in other parts of the film.

What Snowden has in its favour is an economical performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt which is mysterious without being aloof, cool but never cold. The actor gets the voice right (it’s a benign rumble) and though he is physically dissimilar to the real Snowden, that need be no barrier to success: look at Anthony Hopkins in Stone’s Nixon. Gordon-Levitt is absorbed by the role like water vanishing into a sponge. When the real Snowden pops up to stare wistfully off into the distance (there’s a lot of that here), it can’t help but be a let-down. People are so bad at playing themselves, don’t you find?

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard, and it is reassuring that a film in which people are spied on through the webcams of dormant laptops can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable. The script, written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, pulls in the opposite direction, allowing every character to deliver a remark of nudging innuendo. When Snowden is discharged from the army after injuring himself, a doctor tells him: “There are plenty of other ways to serve your country.” When he is approved for a job at the CIA, Snowden tells his employer: “You won’t regret this.” What we have here, give or take the strip club scene in which a pole dancer is filmed from an ungallantly low angle, is a more sober Stone than the one who made JFK and Natural Born Killers but he still can’t resist giving us a few deafening blasts of the old irony klaxon.

Though we know by now not to expect subtlety, Stone’s storytelling techniques are still surprisingly crude. When Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), complains that he has become distant, that he doesn’t touch her any more, the viewer is likely to wonder why that point had to be expressed in soap-opera dialogue rather than, say, action or camera angles. After all, the film was more than happy to throw in a superfluous sex scene when their love life was hunky-dory.

But when Stone does make his points visually, the cringe factor is even higher. He used carnivorous imagery in Nixon – a bloody steak stood in for murder – and the new film doesn’t take the vegetarian option either. Snowden is already starting to be alarmed by surveillance tactics when he goes hunting with his boss, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans). The pheasants they kill are barbecued in sizzling close-up, providing a buffet of symbolism. Snowden is going to be grilled. His goose is cooked. He’s dead meat.

An early scene showing him establishing contact with Poitras and Greenwald by an exchange of coded phrases (“What time does the restaurant open?” “Noon. But the food is a little spicy”) suggests that Stone intends to have fun with the story’s espionage trappings. The movie falls between two stools, however, lacking either the irreverence of satire or the tautness of a well-tooled thriller. At its most effective moments, it floats free of irony and captures a quaint, tactile innocence. We see Snowden communicating in sign language with an NSA colleague to avoid being eavesdropped on, or sitting in bed with a blanket over him as he taps away at his laptop. He is only hiding his passwords but he looks for all the world like a kid reading comics by torchlight after his mother has said: “Lights out.”

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 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump