Review – Master and Margarita – Complicite at the Barbican

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How do you adapt a novel with no less than four different story lines going simultaneously? Worse, how do you do this when you’re dealing with a novel that commonly is chosen as one of the top one hundred novels of the twentieth century? That’s the challenge I knew Complicite was facing with Master and Margarita. I’d seen it performed before in Seattle, in an enjoyable production by Theater Simple. However, I didn’t know the work at all at the time (mutterings of “cult like following” and “classic” were heard), so I was mystified by what Jesus had to do with a giant black cat.

Over time as I started choosing non-science fiction books to read, Master and Margarita made its way into my stack. I found it really impressive – a story of a poet being beaten down by the bureaucratic realities of writing in the Soviet era, narrative breaks about Pontius Pilate’s struggles during the trial and crucifixion of Jesus, a meta-narrative about the author of the story of Pilate (and told by him to the poet while they are both in an insane asylum), and another quite fantastic tale of Margarita, a woman who sells her soul to the devil to be reunited with her lover, whom is only ever called “The Master.” How do you make sense of this? I figured it would be necessary to cut, cut, cut (and was correct – I mean, after all, this was not Harry Potter fandom we were dealing with), but that still we would be left with several real challenges. After all, there are TWO decapitations in this play, and in both, the head talks afterward! And then there is the talking giant cat (still!), the devil’s ball, and the question of how you can handle having a witch fly.

But then there is the group doing the performance: Complicite, who knocked my socks off with their near “Empty Stage” approach to Shun-kin a year ago. I felt very positive going in. First, I felt they would make the right choices about what to cut. Second, because of their tendency to approach theater from a stripped-down perspective, I felt they would tell the tale in a way that engaged my imagination rather than feeding it to me with a spoon. Really, the story could easily be over-produced. But, in general, the company used minimal props (a bed, chairs, a rug) and substituted minimalist lighting effects for sets, defining rooms with delicately drawn outlines on the floor and mostly letting us add the walls in our minds’ eyes.

I have a real dislike for projections being used to crush imagination instead of setting it free, so I’d like to talk a bit about how they were used for this show, as it was quite intrinsic to the stagecraft. At some points, they were quite heavy-handed: providing a sea of bodies for a scene in a theater (with actual actors planted on stage in chairs in gaps in the pictures); showing a huge pan as if we were shooting up above the streets of Moscow (this done with a satellite photo – while overwhelming especially from own seat in the gods, I found it appropriate for a story so entwined with the actual geography of an actual city); the transformation of the floor of the stage into a sky and clouds upon which Margarita (paddling on her stomach on the stage) could fly. Despite their usefulness, I couldn’t help but feel these full-stage moving images were dictating our visual experience in a way I think belittled our abilities as an audience to take small cues and run with them.

My biggest problem with the projections was when they were used in a Katie Mitchell-esque way (i.e. Attempts on Her Life), to show people’s faces in closeups on the back of the theater as they talked in front. This to me was too much like watching TV and I seriously disliked it. That said, the projections deftly handled the issue of the decapitated heads, with (in one case) a projection of only the face an actor (who was sitting on the side of the stage with a bright light on his face) being shone onto a clay model of a head, thus letting it “talk” (via the projection) and then be smashed – not really possible with a real actor. So score one for stagecraft.

Amidst all of this, how was the story? Well, I think it was a bit difficult to get too emotionally involved in it; like the book itself, there is a lot going on and a lot to think about, but not too much to tug the heartstrings. And there is a great element of comedy and absurdity in the goings on, but also a kind of distant observation of the struggles of humankind. Pilate’s self-questioning as he deals with Yeshua seem typical of how every person deals with hard decisions, and in a way a bit of a foreshadowing of what was going to happen in Germany … and of the humanity of Yeshua’s response, that underneath it all, even when forced to do evil deeds, people are still essentially good.

Watching all of the flappings of the still-new Soviet state as it attempted to bed in Communism and figure out its relationship to the arts, though, I felt a profound sadness about the world this play depicted. Yes, people struggled to get treats like cigarettes and nice clothes, yes, people ratted on their neighbors in order to get better apartments, yes, dissidents were starting to disappear, but I could see a civil society struggling to take place, I could see people undertaking deep intellectual pursuits in a society that had time for serious literature: and all of it was on the verge of being entirely blown away, both by World War II and the Stalinist purges. I was watching a society attempt to flower just before a boot heel ground it out – and it was heartbreaking to see this work as a memory of a time that had been so thoroughly erased by history. It all could have gone so very differently.

Despite this feeling, despite what happened later, Master and Margarita is profoundly compelling both as a message in a bottle and as a beacon of the amazing powers of the human imagination. You can feel all of that spirit swelling up through Complicite’s production, even way up in the corner of the second balcony where I was perched on the edge, enjoying it all. Overall, I think this was an excellent production of a timeless work of fiction addressing universal concerns, and well worth its investment in time (195 minutes, the first act an intense 1:45 so don’t have a drink beforehand) and money (I only spent £14 but I’d rate it as worth £30 or £40). Sadly, it’s sold out for the run … but if you keep hitting F5 you may be able to get a ticket, so don’t give up.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, March 16th, 2012. It continues through April 7th. Contains both male and female nudity done in the best possible way to move the script forward.)

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