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The Master and Margarita

3rd April 2012

‘What’s it about?’.

This is the inevitable question you can expect when introducing anyone to a piece of literature you’ve stumbled across and would love to share with them, but with the Master and Margarita it introduces a formidable problem, because this is no ordinary book. Penguin classics summarises it thus;

‘One Spring afternoon the Devil, trailing fire and chaos in his wake, weaves himself out of the shadows and into moscow in (Mikhail) Bulgakov’s fantastical, funny and frightening satire of Soviet life. Brimming with magic and incident, it is full of imaginary, historical, terrifying and wonderful characters, from witches, poets and Biblical tyrants to the beautiful, courageous Margarita, who will do anything to save the imprisoned writer she loves.’

That certainly sets up expectations, but it does little to prepare the reader for the literary spectacular that is to follow. Master and Margarita is a high concept novel with some very down-to-Earth messages. With three major story lines spanning a woman’s love for a talented writer, Pontius Pilate’s inability to balance duty with morality and the Devil’s interest in the Moscovites loss of faith, it’s almost impossible to believe that the novel could become a cohesive whole, yet Bulgakov balances it beautifully.

A blend of Russian realism and theatrical fantasy, the book has many levels to appreciate. It features two beheadings, an outrageous theatre show, an apartment that grows and shrinks in size (thanks to the fifth dimension) and a 6 foot tall black cat called Behemoth, who has the habit of talking his way into trouble wherever he goes. And then there are the Muscovites themselves who will do anything for money or property. Frankly it’s a hard novel to explain.

How then do you stage a play of this sweeping, inexplicable story? This problem fell to Simon McBurney, a founding member of Complicite, a theatre group formed in 1983. Compicite’s strengths lie in their ability to approach each work differently and their open embrace of modern technology that allows them the opportunity to perform works that would otherwise be near impossible. McBurney’s minimalist approach and seamless blending of technology and live action tell a vivid and exciting story yet allow the viewer to fill in the missing detail themselves, much like reading a book, which allows us to experience the story the way that he wanted us to whilst also experiencing it as individuals, each of us carrying away a secret vision of the events we saw. For me it definitely didn’t disappoint, and now I have two wonderful versions of one of my favourite stories in my head.

The Barbican run is now sold out, but I recommend anyone to catch it if it extends it’s run or moves on.

The Barbican theatre begins to fill

Theatrical themes abound

Brian Published by Brian 3rd April 2012
Posted in:  Art Technology