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.