The Master and Margarita, Barbican Centre

The Master and Margarita at the Barbican Centre, adapted from Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel and directed by Simon McBurney.

Before I start writing my impressions on this spectacular play, I must point out that I read The Master and Margarita about three years ago and my memory of the book is not as vivid as I wish it were.

The idea of adapting Mikhail Bulgakov’s masterpiece into a theatre show would seem like a devilishly ambitious project because of the complexity of the novel, with its continuous switching between at least three different stories, and the diverse themes it deals with: life and death, good and evil, religion and atheism, what is real and what is imagined… just to name the more obvious ones. But director Simon McBurney manages to recreate this literary work in a way which I am tempted to describe as perfect.

Moscow, nineteen thirties. A certain professor Woland plunges into the city – presented in dark sunglasses and a long dark coat, he claims to be a performer of black magic and “may or may not be a foreigner”. He is accompanied by a retinue consisting of Koroviev, Azazello and Behemoth – a foul-mouthed and sarcastic anthropomorphic black cat, and turns out not to be a professor at all, but the devil himself. The series of ill-fated events which break loose after the arrival of this malefic threesome include the beheading of Berlioz – a member of the literary society MASSOLIT. Fellow club member Ivan Ponyryov witnesses his friend’s death and attempts to report Woland and his gang to the authorities, but inevitably finds himself locked up in a mental asylum. It is here that he meets the hero of our story, known only as the Master. Ivan’s story is entwined with that of the love affair between the Master and his beloved Margarita, which has been torn apart following the rejection of the Master’s novel on the part of Moscow’s literary circles. It is this very novel which brings these accounts together with the story of Pontius Pilate and Jesus, and consequently reconnects the three characters back to the devil.

The Complicite theatre company took me aback with the intensity of the performances and I was captivated by the extremely passionate acting of Paul Rhys, the Master, and Susan Lynch, Margarita. I don’t go to the theatre as often as I wish I did, but I was overwhelmed by so much dedication and by the almost aggressive emotivity of the recital. Rhys’s talent proves to be without limits as he takes on both the sensitive, despairing role of the Master, and the seductive, cunning role of Satan – arousing in his audience, yes, sympathy for the devil. The cast does an incredible job at capturing the colourful diversities of the story’s characters as, quite literally, all hell breaks loose on the stage of the Barbican. Just as the cast wonderfully brings to life the book’s characters, the set transports the audience into another dimension, first to Moscow, then to Jerusalem, smoothly weaving between the two as they overlap on stage, flawlessly merging into one. There’s an ingenious use not only of the stage but also of the backdrop, which blend into one another thanks to the use of overhead cameras and clever projections.

Bulgakov’s novel is both seductive and mesmerising, with a good dose of dark humour. The story thrives essentially on absurdity and surrealism, to which the production company has added a few modernisations here and there – which never fail to raise a smile in the audience. Not only that, but Simon McBurney has a few unexpected surprises hidden up his sleeve.

With so much madness, and so much happening on stage, Complicite’s The Master and Margarita leaves me wondering how I ever managed to make any sense of the book at the time when I read it. The production flourishes with an intensity that the original novel failed to transmit to me (reason why it demands another reading).

But amongst all this dreamlike extravaganza and folly, there is an autobiographical content which can be found in the Master’s act of burning his own manuscript (from which the famous line: “manuscripts don’t burn”). This could be seen as a reference to Bulgakov himself, who indeed burnt one of the first copies of his book. With numerous allusions to great writers of the past, amongst which a quote from Goethe’s Faust, and towards the end of the show, a few words on the author himself, my impression is that The Master and Margarita is very much about the act of writing itself. “The piece is not about religion,” says Simon McBurney, “it is about stories and the telling of stories and the power of stories”. And maybe, just maybe, all these allegories of Jesus and the Devil, of love and life and death and of insanity and despair are all just an allegory of the act of writing.

Complicite performing The Master and Margarita, photograph by Bohumil Kostohryz

Complicite performing The Master and Margarita, photograph by Bohumil Kostohryz

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