Monday, 26 March 2012

Theatre review: The Master and Margarita

I was a rare voice of dissent among the praise for Complicite's A Disappearing Number, so wasn't sure if I fancied the company's latest venture, The Master and Margarita. But with the excellent Sinéad Matthews in one of the title roles, and Big Favourite Round These Parts Henry Pettigrew in the ensemble, I decided to give it a chance. Mikhail Bulgakov's satirical novel about the Devil visiting Soviet-era Moscow is apparently famously impenetrable (I haven't read it myself) and so it is with Simon McBurney's stage adaptation. Its Möbius plot encompasses two writers, both inspired to write identical stories that are essentially the Gospel According to Pontius Pilate, only for both to have them rejected by the authorities for their suggestion that Jesus/Yeshua actually existed. There's also a demonic variety show, a ball attended by history's most notorious killers, and the titular doomed affair.

The story begins with Ivan (Richard Katz, formerly of The EnsembleTM - there's a few of them back on the stage in the next couple of weeks and months) having just written the Pilate story, seeing a friend decapitated by a tram, as the sinister Woland had predicted. Believing the Devil to be roaming Moscow, Ivan ends up in the lunatic asylum along with the Master (Paul Rhys.) The latter has also written the Pilate Gospel, and his experience of trying to get it published ties in with his affair with Margarita (Matthews.) When they are separated, Margarita turns to Woland (also Rhys) who takes her on a magical journey over the city and into its heart. It's a sprawling story that's told with a lot of visual flair. The projections (animation by Luke Halls, video by Finn Ross) are among the biggest stars of the show, strips of white light that reassemble themselves into geometric shapes and outline rooms that expand or shrink, are the key visual signature.

McBurney also asks a lot of the performers, particularly Matthews who's required to spend much of the second act giving her vagina an airing while being transported around the stage. Actually with her hair in a black bob and wearing nothing but blue body paint, chunky heels and a crown, she looks uncannily like Lady Gaga. Possibly in her outfit for doing the dishes. Add a disturbing puppet of a coke-snorting demonic cat (plus a puppet child that I don't think was meant to be disturbing, but is anyway) and Margarita's truly epic flight over Moscow and the show is brimming with great visuals and theatrical creativity. But not for the first time with Complicite, I found that the show was clever but cold, an exercise in adapting a book considered un-adaptable rather than creating an interesting show out of it, and one that keeps pointing back to its own intellectual credentials. The indulgent running time is partly caused by a severe case of Multiple Ending Syndrome, the last 30 minutes at least consisting of a string of epilogues, conclusions and codas that suggest narrowing down one of the novel's strands might have been a better option than trying to put it all on the stage. Again, the company have come up with a show I can admire, but not like.

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, adapted by Simon McBurney, Edward Kemp and the company, is booking until the 7th of April at the Barbican Theatre; then continuing on tour to Madrid, Vienna, Recklinghausen, Amsterdam and Avignon.

Running time: 3 hours 20 minutes including interval (the first act is 1 hour 45 minutes.)

4 comments:

  1. Hmm ... I have the book, but haven't gotten around to reading it yet. Do I want to try?

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    1. Well I'm sure the multiple plotlines work better in a novel than on stage. I know the original book is also famous for being a bit impenetrable, but at the same time loads of people seem to love it so it may be worth a go!

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  2. I felt the show had lost its heart and was over-load with techo-visuals. But if the company hones it down, perhaps it can work as a a more affecting piece of theatre.

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    1. As with A Disappearing Number I found it to be more of a technical exercise than a show with heart; but a lot of people seem to disagree, on both shows, so clearly someone is finding something I'm just not seeing.

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