Hackney Citizen

Staging the ‘unstageable’ – The Master and Margarita

The Master and Margarita returns for a second stint at the Barbican

The Master and Margarita Bohumil Kostohryz

Magical: The Master and Margarita. Photograph: Bohumil Kostohryz

Tickets for Steven McBurney’s hit production of the supposedly ‘unstageable’ Soviet-era masterpiece swiftly sold out earlier this year. A three-and-a half hour behemoth of magical realism and visual spectacle, the play pits evil against the power of compassion in Mikhail Bulgakov’s epic tale.

The grim horror of Stalin’s Moscow is the setting, as the devil pays a visit to the city in the guise of Woland, a professor of black magic. Played by Paul Rhys, who doubles up as the struggling Master, Woland creates mayhem and despair as he forces its citizens to confront their own greed, corruption and hypocrisies.

Against this stormy backdrop, love and clemency find their way into the play, explored through a parallel narrative taking place in New Testament Jerusalem, where we imagine Jesus at the mercy of Pontius Pilate. Throughout the play, the plot twists between the love story of the Master and his faithful muse Margarita in atheist Moscow, and the last days of Christ.

“It’s so difficult to encapsulate what single meaning the play has to me,” says Rhys. “At its absolute emotional basis it is a novel about human betrayal and loss.”

Rhys is picking up the mantle of the title role for the second time in his professional career. He says casting a single actor in both roles highlights the vulnerability of the Master versus the unfaltering certainty of Woland, who is obsessed with exposing sins and the purity of the soul.

Light-hearted viewing this certainly ain’t.

Andrew Lloyd Webber famously washed his hands of the novel, calling it ‘unstageable’, while Federico Fellini and Roman Polanski both tried and failed to bring it to the silver screen, but McBurney is back for a second bite of the apple.

Many describe The Master and Margarita as one of the most important pieces of literature to emerge from the twentieth century. According to Rhys, the Complicite company spent a long time developing the script through improvisation and examination of the original text, which was written between 1928 and 1940.

“We took it small section by small section and through this microscopic analysis we began to understand the broader philosophical structure at the heart of the novel,” he says. “People are obsessed with the book and now the production, but Simon’s production has stayed true to the nature of the book.

“Exploring material of this density for extended periods is highly rewarding,” he continues. “I don’t know if it is at all possible to cram something of this magnitude into a conventional rehearsal period and expect to get much out of the other end in terms of the soul of the piece.”

The cast are returning to their roles with fresh energy, bringing, according to Rhys, a new maturity to their parts. Additions to the cast include Robert Luckay, Toby Sedgewick and Susan Lynch, who will play Margarita.

The show itself is visually extravagant, with stage design from award-winning Es Devlin, who was behind the closing ceremony of the Olympics, and costumes from Christina Cunningham. Boasting video projections, tricks and puppetry from the Blind Summit Theatre Company, the play is a juggernaut of powerful physical performance and exhausting drama.

“People should expect the ride of their lives,” adds Rhys. “It’s not conventional theatre in the accepted sense yet, as is often the case with Simon’s work.”

The Master and Margarita
Until Saturday 19 January 2013
Barbican Theatre

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