They said it was unstageable, but as Simon McBurney’s monster adaptation of The Master and Margarita returns for a second run at the Barbican this month, it seems they were wrong.
This is an epic production of Mikhail Bulgakov’s Soviet-era masterpiece, bursting with visual wizardry, on-stage spectacle and a huge cast. The fantastical story explores virtue, compassion and artistic freedom, set against the backdrop of a violently repressive totalitarian regime, as the devil pays a visit to Moscow to expose the hypocrisies of its citizens.
The play hinges on three parallel narratives. Two are set in grim Stalinist Russia. In one of them the Devil torments Soviet literati whilst the other follows the love story between the Master and Margarita. The third is set in New Testament Israel where Pontius Pilate is deliberating the fate of Jesus Christ.
McBurney doesn’t attempt to simplify the story and re-package it in bite-size pieces. Instead, the show is an unapologetic behemoth that sucks you in and spits you out again three hours later.
Paul Rhys returns to play both the Devil and the Master. It is a mesmerising performance. He switches deftly between the anguished writer, tormented by his work and maddened by encounters with the Devil, to playing the sarcastic prince of darkness himself. Humour is central to Bulgakov’s novel and McBurney’s production loses none of its satire, with Rhys delivering many of the play’s funniest lines.
Susan Lynch, who spends much of the second half naked but for a gold chain and a crown, is a strong new addition to the cast. Cesar Sarachu’s scarily emaciated Jesus and Tim McMullen’s troubled Pontius also give highly articulate performances. The Devil’s foul-mouthed cat, portrayed by a tall puppet, stands out, hissing obscenities across the stage and tormenting the audience. For we do not escape judgement.
Cameras project images of the audience onto the back of the stage so that we too are forced to look at ourselves.
Much of the production’s splendour lies in its tightly choreographed and exquisitely executed stagecraft. The cast plays a hundred different characters that become part of the staging itself. En masse they portray mayhem blossoming in the Devil’s wake as insanity engulfs the characters. Tricks include transforming themselves into a train steaming across the snowy landscape and a pack of galloping horses.
Set designer Es Devlin is no stranger to Olympian feats of visual artistry after working on the closing ceremony of the 2012 games, with Fin Ross’s video projections, Paul Anderson’s lighting and Gareth Fry’s sound bringing Bulgakov’s magic realism to life.
In the last scene, the brickwork on the old Soviet building façade crumbles to reveal a projected galaxy of stars and planets. As the dust settles and we spin into outer space it seems a fittingly surreal ending for this beautiful and brutal production.
The Master and Margarita
Until 19 January 2013