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Like being sucked into a massive time-travelling Google Earth then shuttled around a hi-tech pinball game, Simon McBurney/Complicite’s theatre production The Master and Margarita is a meticulously-controlled chaos of slick choreography and spectacular visuals. It is an extraordinary rendition of Mikhail Bulgakov’s sprawling satirical novel, set in Moscow in the 1930s.
Written in 1939, at the height of Stalin’s brutal purges, Bulgakov’s now-cult novel The Master and Margarita is a burlesque and violent book, scripted in a tone of irreverent outrage. In it, a sharp-suited devil and his nasty cat arrive in Moscow and wreak havoc on a society already crumbling under the weight of its own pretension and hypocrisy. In its allusion to real figures implicated in the political and cultural repression of the times, and to the sinister activities of the Soviet secret police, the book was deemed dangerous and was not to be published until 1966 – 26 years after the author’s death and more than a decade after Stalin’s. It is also dark. If there is any life-affirming message to be gleaned at all, it is that love, represented by that between the Master and Margarita, sort-of prevails – though you might need to sell your soul for it.
Soliloquies, projections, a decapitated melon, a kiosk-turned-tram and an accumulation of chairs into a galloping horse … a collaboration between theatre troupe Complicite, led by director Simon McBurney, the dramatist Edward Kemp and a team of experts in stagecraft, including set designer Es Devlin, techie associates of The Third Company and video and projection designer Finn Ross, The Master and Margarita is inventive to say in the least. It also, impressively, manages to keep its theatrical and technological ingenuity in perfect balance.
Some, like The Guardian’s Michael Billington, might find it a bit much. And at over three hours long the production can be exhausting; visuals inevitably bamboozle which makes it harder to glean meaning from the text. Yet theatre is not meant to purely entertain. The fact that it is physically, emotionally, visually, intellectually and linguistically demanding makes for a more genuine contemporary experience.
Thanks to Finn Ross for the photos I pinched from the behance network website.
Read Michael Billington’s review here.