“The Master and Margarita” at the Barbican

Mikhail Bulagakov’s classic novel, The Master and Margarita, is a work known for its complexity. A satire, full of politics and philosophy, it is marked by what has come to be known as magical realism. With the action moving speedily between the trial of Christ and Stalin’s Moscow, and a cast including the devil and his cat, it’s easy to see why many would regard it as unstageable. But Simon McBurney, and his theatre company Complicite, love a challenge and this production shows that, as they approach their 30th anniversary, they are at the top of their game: drawing out the theatricality in the book, enjoying the farce, and injecting drama into the fantasy elements of the story.

Marked by a level of accomplishment that is truly breathtaking the action is presented with invention and wit. The set, designed by Es Devlin, is a facade of houses onto which some of the finest video work I’ve seen on stage is screened. Not content with this, McBurney uses the floor of the stage, filming live and projecting onto the walls; it’s appropriately disorientating and makes the production seem bigger than the theatre itself. The lighting from Paul Anderson is an essential part of the show, used with intelligence to great effect.

But no matter how stunning the show looks it would be just a bag of tricks without the acting that accompanies it. The text, devised by McBurney with Edward Kemp and the company, moves at a great pace, with short scenes that require instant emotions in surreal circumstances. Tim McMullan is so powerful as Pontius Pilate he seems to anchor the whole show and, taking the title role of The Master, Paul Rhys gives a stunning performance. Susan Lynch, who plays Margarita, shows great bravery (not least since she spends a good deal of the play naked) with the emotional rawness she brings to the part. Lynch and the company manage to make the story of The Master and Margarita, and the idea that is should appear on stage, believable.

Until 19 January 2013

barbican.org

Photo by Bohumil Kostohryz

Written 21 December 2012 for The London Magazine

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