Interview: Simon McBurney

Sophie Elmhirst talks to the director about adapting Bulgakov.

Sophie Elmhirst talks to the director about adapting Bulgakov.

How do you begin to reimagine The Master and Margarita for the stage?
I thought I knew, having read this novel as an adolescent, what it meant, but the very elusiveness of its meaning is part of its meaning, which makes it difficult to translate. You've got to hold on to the core, and finding the core of this thing is like trying to catch an eel in an extremely large swimming pool.

What spurred you to do it?
I was keen to stage Faust, although I find Goethe's Faust indigestible. I didn't feel like staging Marlowe's Faustus, but thought "Surely The Master and Margarita is the ultimate Faust story." It is also very funny and very crazy.

You often talk about the importance of retaining a childlike quality. How do you balance the chaos of that with directing?
I allow people to create but I'm also marshalling everybody, which is difficult for my creativity as I'm like a referee. Everybody else is kicking a ball. It is very messy. From the mess, though, you refine what is there. What I'd like people to experience is what I'd like to experience - of something working on many levels. Not just a smart take on a Shakespeare play - "Reimagined for our times, in a urinal in Ukraine!". I would rather be not sure what you've seen.

As a story, it lends itself to such ambiguity.
It's a story about many things - about a man who wrote a story and about stories within stories. What you have is a picture of a society which is governed by a rational view of humanity but set against that is the irrational mind, that organisms are chaotic, unpredictable, unknowable. In the extraordinary collision of ideas in this book is a remarkable evocation of the processes of human consciousness.

Is the theatre uniquely equipped to explore ideas of consciousness?
In the theatre, because you're all looking at the same thing in the same space, consciousness is no longer individual. There is a unified consciousness. Until you look and project what is happening, it doesn't exist; the audience are the ones making the theatre, not the players.

“The Master and Margarita" is at the Barbican, London EC2, from 15 March to 7 April

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The end of socialism