The Master and Margarita

Theatre, West End
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The Master and Margarita
© Tristram Kenton
The Master and Margarita

A new Complicite show isn't just a devised play: it's a theatrical event. At the company's inimitable best, it is a ticket to another world. And what a world artistic director Simon McBurney has picked this time: 1930s Moscow as seen through the surreal lens of Mikhail Bulgakov's magic realist satire, 'The Master and Margarita'.

Hitherto unstageable, unfilmable and – for its ailing, censored author, almost unfinishable – Bulgakov's great sunset novel is a desperately glamorous ride through many worlds of betrayal, love and cruelty.

Its crowd scenes are swelled by writers, muses, Judases and petty officials. And the set-piece scenes that adaptors must convey are Faustian in their scope: they range from the fly-tormented crucifixion of Jesus to the luminous perversion of a muderers' ball, given by Satan and his giant black cat.

Complicite's signature ability to tell a story with breathtaking fluency across the media of words, concerted physical movement, dazzling film projections and immersive soundscapes helps the company succeed where the likes of Fellini and Lloyd-Webber abandoned hope.

Their three-and-a-quarter-hour staging brings Bulgakov's vision to teasing, mournful, erotic life. At its considerable best, it turns it into a human kaleidoscope: in one unforgettable scene, where the devil does a black magic show at a Moscow theatre, the gurning, quaking faces of the audience are multiplied and mirrored all over the huge backdrop.

Complicite's adaptation is a collage of horror and delight, played out at odd angles over multiple flickering planes. It captures the absurd wit, the philosophy and the sheer spectacular thrill of Bulgakov's novel. But it lacks tenderness – even though the eponymous lovers, a tortured writer and his muse, are foregrounded from the start.

Paul Rhys is heartbreakingly good as the broken Master – and, in one of the show's many impressive tricks, also plays Professor Woland, the Devil's alias in Moscow, with sinister Dracula-accented élan. But I found it hard to believe that Sinead Matthews's feisty Margarita loves her Master, even when she flies naked to Satan's ball to save him.

Like the multi-storied novel, the show suffers from multiple endings. In its biblical Jerusalem story, Tim McMullan's Pontius Pilate makes poignant emotional contact with Cesar Sarachu's Yeshua, whom he sentences to death.

This is one hell of a party. But that sense of love – and betrayal and complicity – is something gets a little lost in the impressive burlesquing of the black-magic finale, where the Master and Margarita ride through the sky and vanish into a technically dazzling black universe of stars.


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Average User Rating

3.1 / 5

Rating Breakdown

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I just watched this and I'm still absorbed - what a play! Probably the best I've ever seen. I've read the book twice and was really doubtful whether this could be any good put on stage but it completely convinced me! Especially Margarita was just like I imagined her. Only thing that really bothered me was the cat, it is subtly witty in the book, but plain rude in the play, without any intelligence. This was however made up by Satans other assistants, who played brilliantly! All in all totally recommendable, personally I'd see it again if I could!!!

WOW! I saw this intense and epic production last night and it still is going around in my head. I was not aware of Bulgakov’s book or the story but of Complicite's fantastic work in the past. This play reveals three superb stories interwoven fantastically with seamless changes, multimedia, comedy, puppetry and fantastic acting. Yes, I agree it was a long show (3 hrs 15 mins) but boy do you get your money’s worth. It took me about 30/45mins for my senses to get over being hit by a multisensory bus but that it what the theatre should be in my opinion. At the interval in the queue for the loo and got chatting to a couple of random ladies about the first half and our expectations for the second, once gain this is what theatre should do: engage people’s minds and get them in to conversation. If you haven’t got tickets – get some if you can as this is an experience like no other. I’m not saying it’s everyone’s cuppa tea but I recommend trying a steaming hot dynamic physical theatre cup full to find out…

Bulgakov's Master and Margarita is one of my favourite Russian books of the 20th century. I was curious to see an English interpretation of it on stage. Overall, it was an interesting experience: good acting, easy to follow scenes intervening each other, though I thought that would be a major challenge. However, I was not impressed by the Cat's acting. Its jokes were not suitable to represent the character of the book and spoilt the experience. In my opinion, the director also over-delivered with dark, sombre scenes.

Went last night, Some great acting but a poor production overall, it went on forever, the book just does not lend itself to theatre and they ended up slaughtering a masterpiece, public's entertainment and laughters at silly jokes was beyond annoying, posh british accents on russian characters made me feel it was set in chelsea not Moscow, overall unbearable and enervating, my only regret is not to have left at the break, like others did, don't waste your money

This was sophisticated and amazing theatre that worked at all levels.Why should a production based on a multi-layered, complex novel itself not open out to ambigiousand mutiiple meanings and endings? I did not find it too long and it was one of the best productions I have seen in a long while.

This is a hopelessly superficial and overlong adaption of the novel. Indeed the projections and some of the effects are good, but the general theme of 'mercy' etc is turgidly overcooked. The overall design was dark and sombre, and oh-so-obviously-anti-Soviet Communist. The cat, one the most intriguing characters in the novel is reduced to an over-randy bit-part. Some of the acting was enjoyable, some was mostly definitely not. The lines were often mumbled and delivered in auto-mode, something to do with the poorly written dialogue I guess. If I'd had the guts I would've shouted 'rubbish' at the end...

Andy's hit the nail on the head there. It was a fascinating journey and very entertaining but I was never completely absorbed. Sometimes I felt it was being long for the sake of being long, to add to it's sense of importance rather than contributing to the story. It seemed there was a soul missing - maybe they sold it to the devil in return for big acting and visual wizardry...

As you would expect from Complicite, a feast of theatricality. Visually beautiful, dynamic and exciting. However at times the show seemed underdeveloped and holes in the narrative were covered by relentless movement and declamatory acting. There were parts of the show that could have been cut as they added little to the story and bordered on the self indulgent. There is a strange and interesting tension in Complicite's work which although visceral and powerful in movement and image can remain cold and cerebral at its heart.

Moments of multimedia genius masks an ultimately under-par complicite performance. Master and Margerita is an intriguing, surreal journey into the frustrated mind of a writer stifled by the militant censorship of artists in Communist Russia. McBurney's love of the book is evident in this performance as he takes large swathes of dialogue directly from the novel. Regrettably, this is partly the reason why the show, though entertaining, ultimately falls short of the usual standard that fans of Complicite will have expected of the show prior to taking their seats at the Barbican Theatre. Sadly, the acting skill on show, is not sufficient to hold the audience's interest in the large sections of dialogue that take place, particularly in the first half of the performance. Indeed, this is most notably the case in respect to the lead actress, playing the role of Margerita, whose vocal delivery fails to communicate any more than the shallowest meaning of her character's lines. There are moments of trademark Complicite visual wizzardry. However, these are largely multimedia based, rather than the product of outstanding physical theatre acting, as one usually expects from the company. As a result, although one leaves the performance generally satisfied, one does not leave with the feeling that one has witnessed anything truly magical.

As mad and pacy as the book, I thoroughly enjoyed the whole thing but was happy to be able to get up and walk after a long first half (as I always am!). Also, a plethora of students nearby were more restless than I was by this point and became distracting as they realised they hadn't checked facebook/texts for two whole hours. All in all, a fantastic and thoroughly memorable evening -- at least 9/10 and a big thumbs up from me!

A multimedia production tries to hide a plethora of faults. Not only long winded and turgidly long, all the characters whined and knashed their teeth as only Slavic people can. And it went on and on and on.....