The Master and Margarita
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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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