Review: The Master and Margarita, Barbican Centre
Mikhail Bulgakov’s great satiric novel cries out for theatrical adaptation. Not only does it use the theatre as an integral metaphor and a central plot point, it is so vividly written that the narrative runs like a movie in your head. At the same time, however, its kaleidoscopic structure seems too disjointed and its hallucinogenic episodes, too impossibly otherworldly to fit the stage. “Go on,” it seems to whisper with a grin, “Dare you.”
Simon McBurney’s staging then deserves praise for simply making it to the stage and handling its story with the utmost of clarity. What nags is that its central concern seems simply, “How might we stage this bit?”
Beyond Es Devlin’s projection-orientated design, which maps Moscow into a series of blueprint plans as Lars von Trier did in Dogville, there is very little attempt to link the various sections together thematically. The result is that Complicité present the story rather as is, without really weaving an interpretative path through. Rather than using the new medium to illuminate, McBurney’s production seems content merely to translate from one to another, simply realising the text in three dimensions. It seems a waste; theatre as technical exercise.
That’s not to say that The Master and Margarita is just a fantastical tale. It’s central message, that every individual has a responsibility to speak his or her true mind rather than blithely following the grain, seems particularly pertinent in a world struggling to reorder, even to reinvent, itself.
Bulgakov’s Moscow, corrupt and money-driven on the surface, is easy prey for the devilish Professor Woland because its majority silently conform. He can whip them into a frenzy or steer them like cattle. There are too few men like the Master (Paul Rhys), whose prosaic reconfiguration of Christ into a non-divine Holy Man shows his willingness to stand up and be counted no matter the cost. (McBurney and co-writer Kemp entwine these two layers exquisitely, so that Christ and Pilate exist next to the Master and his Margarita.) By making a casting triangle of Woland, the Master and Christ, McBurney sews them smartly together to form the truss of Bulgakov’s novel.
Beyond that, however, it is an impressive, but strangely cold and surprisingly heartless affair. McBurney has deliberately toned down the novel’s popping-candy quality in favour of a more sparse and Soviet aesthetic. That makes the more freewheeling second-half, which hops from the Master to Margarita’s tale, the more enjoyable, as a blue-bodied, raspy Sinead Matthews graces the Devil’s ball full of dinner-jacketed decaying guests.
Even so, the over-reliance on technology somewhat castrates Complicité’s stagecraft. For the flying sequence, Matthews lies on the floor, on which projected backdrops whizz past, and just wobbles a bit. Filmed from above and re-projected on the backwall, the effect reminds one of shoddy Superman green-screen techniques. The tram collision, a rush of bodies behind a phone-box-like structure on wheels, is ten times more effective.
The truth is that McBurney’s staging, for all its technical wizardry, can’t live up to the phantasmagoria the novel conjures in your head. Woland’s three henchman are a case in point. Here, Azazello and Koroviev – a squat, snaggle-toothed bundle and a humanoid brick wall – are reduced to the (admittedly caricaturish) human forms of Ajay Naidu and Angus Wright, while Behemoth the oversized cat becomes a rather ungainly puppet. In their own theatrical terms, none of these things are problematic, but next to the pictures Bulgakov paints they fall drastically – and inevitably – short.
Photograph: Es Devlin