Pacts with the devil, gruesome killings, Stalinism, black magic and psychiatric institutions; it’s a wonder that acclaimed theatre company Complicite, now in its 30th year, has taken so long to adapt The Master And Margarita for stage.
Such an epic story calls for an epic production and Simon McBurney’s company rarely produces anything else. From the sweltering hills of Biblical Jerusalem to a stormy 1939 Moscow, Mikhail Bulgakov’s story is captured in all its bizarre, magical and passionate glory with Complicite’s electric staging that crams every scene with imaginative devices and uniquely stunning visual tricks.
Projected against the Barbican Theatre’s vast stage, Google Earth becomes a dizzying backdrop as we zoom from the home of Pontius Pilate, where he meets with a reluctant prophet, to the basement of The Master who is writing a controversial but great piece of literature about the leader under the watchful eye of his devoted lover Margarita.
Sinister shadows mark the arrival of a spy-like Satan and his equally devilish assistants – including Bulgakov’s vision of an eight foot cat, portrayed by a grotesque, filthy tongued red-eyed puppet – while slashed watermelons and video trickery portray his evil beheadings as the damnable yet disarmingly witty being arrives to play havoc with Moscow’s materialistic inhabitants.
But in this story the phrase ‘Hell has no fury like a woman scorned’ truly comes into play, with emphasis on the hell. Forced apart from her beloved, Margarita makes a pact with the devil and becomes his queen in the manic, nightmarish, magical climax of the piece that builds the energy on stage to a fevered pitch near explosion.
At almost three and a half hours long, performing a piece so rich in design and theatrical imagination requires a company that can perform with ultimate precision, and this group of actors don’t disappoint. Paul Rhys gives a tireless performance as both the truly ominous devil figure and the mentally broken Master, while Susan Lynch is fearless as Margarita and Richard Katz captivates as the writer Ivan Nikolayic Bezdomny who finds himself thrown into the heart of this mad world of sorcery and passion.
Everything is rich in this operatically dramatic production; the colours, lighting, sound and all-consuming acting controlling the rollercoaster energy of the piece through a strict choreography that draws you in before leaving you staggered as the lights of the real world return and McBurney’s vivid world disappears.