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Patrick Kennedy has published 7 articles

Review: The Master and Margarita

Forget Doctor Faustus, says Patrick Kennedy. Simon McBurney’s latest project is a kaleidoscope of devilish ambiguity
Patrick Kennedy on Sunday 1st April 2012
Photograph: Barbican Centre

I’m supposed to be revising for Finals. I have post-it notes dripping from the walls, and piles of textbooks arranged like a little tower-block metropolis on the floor. Weblearn, alarmingly, is beginning to seem like Second Life. But today – just this once, Senior Tutor – I’ve escaped, to watch one of the most extraordinary theatrical events of the year. Finals or not, you need to see this play.

Let me first say this. Simon McBurney, the artistic mastermind behind the Complicité group, can apparently do no wrong. I’ve been hooked by his oblique style since A Disappearing Number, a many-layered and completely baffling exploration of infinity. The idea is to pursue “complicated simplicity”: seize some absurd, disorienting aspect of human life (as McBurney points out, there are many), and ruthlessly distil it through theatre to a sort of visual perfection, crystallising the paradox into an elegant, if somewhat disturbing, series of beautiful self-contradictions. It’s always hallucinatory, unsettling, distressing – and completely addictive.

The Master and Margarita (for those who, like me, might have suspected it was some kind of new deal at Pizza Hut) is Complicité’s phantasmagorical staging of Mikhail Bulgakov’s Soviet-era novel, a brutal exploration of faith and the individual in an impersonal society. We’re drawn into the surreal, oppressive dreamscapes of straight-jacketed Muscovite society – and it turns out to be nightmarish, Satanic realpolitik. Like a dream, visions of traumatic, superficially-distinct scenes sear into your eyeballs: the hellish, Faustian pact of a lover (the eponymous Margarita) trying to resuscitate the past, the anguish of a spineless Pontius Pilate trapped by the dictates of the state, and the cryptic sneer of a leather-coated Satan stalking the streets.

So, you get the point. Bulgakov’s cold satire is acutely disturbed, and McBurney doesn’t back down. It’s a kaleidoscopic migraine of a play. It’s roughly like mixing the theological intensity of Dostoevsky with the electrifying incongruities of Damien Hirst, and injecting the weird concoction into the creative brain of one of Britain’s most exciting directors. Clearly, the results were always going to be bizarre.

“And now tell me,” smirks an imperious Pilate, “why is it that you use the words ‘good people’ all the time? Do you call everyone that, or what?”

In the breathless pause, a merciless visual projection traces the bloodied scars on the vagrant’s back.

“Everyone,” says Christ, “there are no evil people in the world.”

The Master and Margarita is a self-consciously fragmentary play. The narrative splinters into a thousand shards of interconnected thoughts, each refracting some small, penetrating ray of clarity. You can tell, oddly, that they must fit together into a coherent whole, but it’s as though Bulgakov and McBurney have cruelly thrown away the instruction manual. That is, of course, some kind of desperate point: we are not called to understand the human condition so much as to endure it.

Satan puts in a bewitching performance as the unfathomable Professor Woland (various actors), and the anguish of a hyperconscious writer, the Master (Paul Rhys), hideously confined to an asylum, is extraordinary. The bizarre puppet-cat was perhaps a step too far, and Margarita (Sinead Matthews) was, if I’m being brutally honest, perhaps less convincing, uncharacteristic for such a self-assured cast, but, then, who am I to complain? It’s a performance to rival Shun-Kin and A Disappearing Number, and that’s high praise indeed. See it. Now.

And so, back I go – a little shaken – to the post-it notes. But, for now, my mind’s still a world away, stuck in that grim Soviet purgatory with its little cast of victims. Finals, it seems, will just have to wait.


‘The Master and Margarita’ will be staged until 7th April 2012 at the Barbican, London.