The Complicite Theatre Group’s production of The Master and Margarita opened at the Barbican Theatre recently. I wasn’t sure how they were going to translate Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel – finished in 1940 but not published until 1966 – onto the stage, but the end result was fantastic.
The story of a frustrated novelist, confined to a madhouse after his work is rejected by the Russian authorities, and his lover Margarita, who embraces magic and bargains with Satan in order to save him, is a strange and unusual one. The Devil, along with a retinue including a foul-mouthed, gun-toting cat, turns up in Moscow causing havoc, while running through the narrative is the story of Pontius Pilate and his encounter with Jesus – the subject of the Master’s rejected novel.
The minimalist set (designed by the same person who did Muse’s set for the band’s 2009 tour) works well at evoking the utilitarian Communist design of Soviet Moscow. The large cast display great versatility, the majority taking on more than one role, but special mention must go to Paul Rhys as the blackly humorous, sinister Devil, complete with sunglasses and a German accent.
The different plot strands, woven into the novel with great skill, are threaded through the production differently but no less expertly. Scenes flow and fade into one another with rapidity, but without causing confusion, which is no mean feat. The production contains plenty of humour, particularly from the Devil and his troupe (particularly Behemoth the cat, a life-size puppet), but there is a dark undercurrent particularly evident during Satan’s ball, Yeshua’s (Jesus) crucifixion and the Master’s removal from his flat.
The Master and Margarita is a difficult book – after three readings I still can’t claim to understand it – but this production helped me to understand it that little bit more.