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The Magic of The Master and Margarita is Mostly There in the Barbican Production

By Periscope @periscopepost
The magic of The Master and Margarita is mostly there in the Barbican production

Patriarch's Ponds in Moscow, where the Devil arrives "one hot spring evening, just as the sun was going down." Photo credit: Jose Miguel Calatayud http://www.flickr.com/photos/josemcalatayud/4398299272/

Patriarch’s Ponds in Moscow was named in honor of the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church. Which makes it a strange place to encounter the Devil.

But then perhaps Berlioz, an atheist literary editor of The Master and Margarita, invited him there, when he wonders whether it’s time  “to throw everything to the Devil”? For it is as he utters this thought that the compelling stranger, tall and pale, dressed all in black with dark glasses, and a beret, a terrifying glint to his teeth, materialises out of the hot spring air. After he accurately predicts that Berlioz will shortly be decapitated by a streetcar, we are glued to his every move, keen to learn what new disaster he will perpetrate.

Mikhail Bulgakov’s hallucinogenic Moscow-based masterpiece is certainly packed with disaster: It recounts the Devil and his retinue’s visit to Soviet Moscow in 1939, leaving death, dislocation and some amazing black magic tricks in their wake. But alongside the devilish comedy, there is also a love story, of The Master, a writer who has written a novel about Pontius Pilate but is now languishing in a mental asylum and Margarita, a beautiful woman who is willing to sell her soul to the Devil to be reunited with her lover.

Having devoured Bulgakov’s book on a school exchange to Moscow in 1998, I was thrilled when I saw that Simon McBurney and Complicite were going to stage The Master and Margarita at the Barbican. I was, though, a little unsure of how they were going to manage to recreate all the surreal elements of the novel. Whenever a well-loved novel is adapted for stage or screen, some will say that the result did not live up to their imagined vision. In the case of The Master and Margarita, many parts of the book are so fantastical that they would be completely impossible to recreate on stage and would require a massive budget to do so on screen. Complicite did not entirely succeed in overcoming these constraints.

Their Behemoth was not the seductive feline conjured by Bulgakov. This was a clumsily operated puppet with fixed, glaring, red eyes, a whiny feminine voice and lewd turn of phrase. It could not capture the magic of a six-foot black cat walking on his hind legs. Satan’s Grand Ball (attended by the Devil’s favorite murderers), a series of ballrooms conjured within the confines of apartment no. 50, 302B Sadovaya Street, featuring walls of roses and Japanese double camellias, gushing fountains and multi-coloured pools of champagne, wasn’t quite so grand.

Video created some good effects though. Their Google Earth-style zooming in and out of different Moscow locations helped to set the scene and the moment where Crucifix images appeared in quick succession was very effective. They also successfully suggested Margarita’s naked flight over Moscow. Her nudity for much of the second half seemed strangely un-explicit as the ointment she anoints herself with, or else the lighting, turned her a strange blue colour, so that once the crown and gold chains she wears as Queen of the Ball have been added, she resembled an Indian goddess.

Complicite’s script was updated to include references to iPads and the like in order to strip away any illusion that the Devil’s judgment of 1930s Muscovites is not equally applicable to us 21st century Londoners. This is not the only illusion Complicite’s production causes us to question. There is a chilling is parallel between Professor Woland’s psychic prediction of Berlioz’s death and Jesus’s knowledge of Pontius Pilate’s headache. The blurred boundary between good and evil is heightened when Cesar Sarachu (Jesus) slips on the Devil’s mantel for the last section of the play, and we also realize that Paul Rhys was playing the Devil and The Master.

At turns compelling and confusing, lasting for over three hours and with more than one scene in a lunatic asylum, this production could lead one to question one’s own sanity. Indeed, the action was at times hard to follow what and if I hadn’t read the book, I would have been at a total loss. Ultimately, it made me want to go back and read the book again. And perhaps that’s the best an adaptation of such an epic work can hope for?

Complicite/ Simon McBurley’s staging of The Master and The Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov runs at the Barbican Theatre until 7 April.


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