Simon McBurney/Complicite’s production of The Master and Margarita at the Barbican

The pretentious aura that suffocated the Barbican was unbelievable; tweed jackets and Viyella shirts surrounded me like a walking middle-aged Austin Reed wardrobe. In my ‘sergeant military coat’ purchased in the Topshop sale the day before (that’s right, I’m a Boxing Day Shopping Wanker), I felt out of my depth even before I was greeted with the astonishingly complex Master and Margarita.

Mikhail Bulgakov’s 1930s novel is a bold story with interweaving plotlines surrounding Pontius Pilate, a young Russian writer’s biblical literature and a love story with echoes of Bulgakov’s own relationships. The characters include Satan and his retinue, notably including a brazen, foul-mouthed talking black cat and a variety of fearful and compassionate individuals. 

Complicite, along with Simon McBurney, have taken these intricate characters and performed them with class; never have I seen such a slick, fast-paced production with so many clearly highly-experienced professionals on one stage. The solemnity of the psychiatric ward, the heartbreak of Margarita and the empathetic relationship between Jesus Christ and Pontius Pilate are the most emotionally powerful strokes in the play, dealt with utter sincerity. Paul Rhys, who plays the Master, was spectacular in conveying the terror and self-doubt surrounding his works, and his devotion towards Margarita. Jesus, brought to life by Cesar Sarachus, brings extreme poignancy in each of his stage entrances. Predominantly naked and demeaned, he offers the audience a graceful invention of Bulgakov’s character, and along with Pilate, the pair create a stunning vision of forgiveness and spirituality.   

McBurney also triumphed with the technological side of the production, bringing together music, lighting and video in a way I had never experienced before. Transitions between Christ’s age and 1930s Stalin Moscow are made effortlessly, so much so that all the stories appear to be happening at once, which is very effective. This interaction of the supernatural fantasy and reality is performed to a superb backdrop which changes from live filming of the actors from various angles, to images of gloomy apartments. 

The bewitching nature of the performances was constant throughout, most notably in Matthews’ bravely (and predominantly) naked act in the second half, when she becomes the Devil ‘queen’. From rubbing burning ointment over her pale body, to jumping out of her apartment and flying through the air, wearing no more than a decorate chain harness and a pair of towering heels Matthews was vulnerable and under intense scrutiny. Lying on the floor with the camera looming above her, being projected onto the back wall with a rolling scene of Moscow flats was an outstanding representation on what first looked like a suicidal leap. 

With such an intense kaleidoscope of intricacies, it can indeed get relentlessly puzzling. The panache of the technicalities, the perpetual bedazzlement of the storylines and the utter madness of it all does take its toll. It would be churlish to complain on the lack of any particular aspect, as Complicite certainly gives a lot in the just under 3 and a half hour production. McBurney said himself the piece is ‘partly, if not centrally, about compassion’, and it is clear he put the utmost consideration into the production. To me, it was like a loose mixture of soft porn, The Da Vinci Code and Shutter Island, in the way it left me feeling afterwards – liberated, overwhelmed, and pretty damn impressed.

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