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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Indie band The 1975 want to “sue the government” over the Electoral Commission’s latest advert

Frontman Matt Healy perhaps isn’t aware that the Electoral Commission is not, in fact, the government (or believes that this is part of a wider conspiracy).

How do you make registering to vote in the EU Referendum cool? It sounds like something  from The Thick of It, but judging by the Electoral Commission’s latest TV ad for their new voting guide, this was a genuine question posed in their meetings this month. The finished product seems inspired by teen Tumblrs with its killer combination of secluded woodlands, vintage laundrettes and bright pink neon lighting.

But indie-pop band The 1975 saw a different inspiration for the advert: the campaign for their latest album, I Like It When You Sleep For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware Of It (Yes, a title perhaps even more cumbersome than “The EU Referendum - You Can’t Miss It (Phase One)”).

Lead singer Matt Healy posted a picture of the guide with the caption “LOOK OUT KIDZ THE GOVERNMENT ARE STEALING OUR THOUGHTS!!” back on 17 May. The release of the TV spot only furthered Healy’s suspicions:

Healy perhaps isn’t aware that the Electoral Commission is not, in fact, the government (or believes that this is part of a wider conspiracy).

The 1975’s manager, Jamie Oborne, was similarly outraged.

Oborne added that he was particularly “disappointed” that the director for the band’s video for their song “Settle Down”, Nadia Marquard Otzen, also directed the Electoral Commission’s ad. But Otzen also directed the Electoral Commission’s visually similar Scottish Referendum campaign video, released back in September 2014: almost a year before The 1975 released the first promotional image for their album on Instagram on 2 June 2015.

Many were quick to point out that the band “didn’t invent neon lights”. The band know this. Their visual identity draws on an array of artists working with neon: Dan Flavin’s florescent lights, James Turrell’s “Raemar pink white”, Nathan Coley’s esoteric, and oddly-placed, Turner-shortlisted work, Bruce Nauman’s aphoristic signs, Chris Bracey’s neon pink colour palette, to just name a few – never mind the thousands of Tumblrs that undoubtedly inspired Healy’s aesthetics (their neon signs were exhibited at a show called Tumblr IRL). I see no reason why Otzen might not be similarly influenced by this artistic tradition.

Of course, The 1975 may be right: they have helped to popularise this particular vibe, moving it out of aesthetic corners of the internet and onto leaflets dropped through every letterbox in the country. But if mainstream organisations weren’t making vaguely cringeworthy attempts to jump on board a particular moment, how would we know it was cool at all?

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