'The Master and Margarita' – Complicite & Simon McBurney
Adapting a novel as complex, well-known and revered as Bulgakov’s 'The Master and Margarita' is an act of hubris that few theatre companies could hope to live up to. Thankfully Complicite is one of those few. Back for its second run at the Barbican, Simon McBurney’s carefully constructed show manages to encapsulate most of the Bulgakov’s complex and twisting satire of 1930s Soviet Russia. It tells of the Devil’s visit to a voraciously atheistic Moscow – in the guise of Professor Woland – and the persecution of the mysterious Master for his novel depicting the struggles of Pontius Pilate over the fate of Jesus.
There is heavy use of technology throughout the production, including large scale projections, 3D animations and live camera work. Despite this, the show retains a rawer aesthetic than many of Complicite’s recent efforts. Allowing much of the camera work to be controlled live by the cast keeps the projections alive and responsive. It creates some wonderful open stage trickery as Margarita flies across the stage and the Devil temporarily removes the head of an unsuspecting Muscovite.
The constructed aesthetic of the show is rooted in the strong ensemble work of the cast, who create a wealth of settings and characters, from the literati of Moscow to the rotting dead of the Devil’s Spring Ball. In now trademark Complicite fashion, this is done with little more than a few chairs, some clever costume changes and the requisite lengths of dowel. Although all these devices are now well known to the point of cliché, in McBurney’s hands they still maintain vibrancy, even on the Barbican’s vast main stage.
Sadly the show’s weak point is its puppetry. The foul-mouthed cat Behemoth, part of Woland’s eclectic retinue, is a human-sized feline that attempts to energetically bound around the stage. In reality he looks and moves more like an out-of-place stuffed toy, and often is simply carried by his manipulators in order to cover the distances the vast stage dictates. His harsh and tacky red LED eyes epitomise the mismatch between the puppet and the show’s design. However, this is a small criticism of what is undeniably a fantastic piece of the theatre that's not to be missed.
Directed – Simon McBurney
Set design – Es Devlin
Costume design – Christina Cunningham
Lighting design – Paul Anderson
Sound design – Gareth Fry
Video design – Finn Ross
Puppetry – Blind Summit Theatre
3D animation – Luke Halls