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The Master and Margarita

Complicite and Simon McBurney present THE MASTER AND MARGARITA adapted from the novel by Mikhail Bulgakov by Simon McBurney, the Company and Edward Kemp,  at the Barbican Theatre, London.

The Complicite theatre company led by Simon McBurney has toured to Australia many times. The last time was with A DISAPPEARING NUMBER seen at the Sydney Theatre. It was a thrilling experience. I saw it twice. One day following another. Amazing. Technically innovative and story wise transporting and wonderfully moving. Finding that this company’s adaptation of Mikhail Bulgakov’s THE MASTER AND MARGARITA had returned to London for a repeat season at the Barbican caused me to wait in line for two and a half hours to gain tickets to what was a sell-out season.

The novel by Bulgakov is an immense, and to most of us, my reading friends, at least, a puzzling experience. I confess I have never finished it, after many attempts to do so. The novel was written between 1928 and 1940, as Richard Peaver writes in the production notes in the program: “… abandoned, taken up again, burned, resurrected, recast and revised many times.” during the darkest decades in the 20th Century in Russia. “… The successive changes in his (Bulgakov’s) work on the novel, his changing evaluations of the book and its characters, reflect events in his life and his deepening grasp of what was at stake in the struggle. …” Bulgakov’s last revisions were dictated to his wife a few weeks before his death at the age of 49. He, they never believed it would be published. However, a first part was published in a monthly magazine, MOSKVA, in November, 1966, causing a sensation. The second part in January, 1967. First published as novel, later on, in 1967, but definitively in a so-called “canonical” version in 1989, prepared by Lydia Yanovskaya. Its original appearance caused amazement firstly, because most people believed that the major works of Bulgakov were already in existence, including THE WHITE GUARD, and when this novel did appear in publication, it was hailed as a major achievement, not just the scraps of the author’s note books! Secondarily,

… there were the qualities of the novel itself – its formal originality, the devastating satire of Soviet life, and of Soviet literary life in particular, its ‘theatrical’ rendering of the Great Terror of the thirties (Stalin and his regime), the audacity of its portrayal of Jesus Christ and Pontius Pilate, not to mention Satan. But, above all, the novel breathed an air of freedom, artistic and spiritual, which had become rare indeed, (and) not only in Soviet Russia. … aphorisms from the novel, oft quoted: “Manuscripts don’t burn” and ” Cowardice is the only sin” seem to express an absolute trust in the triumph of poetry, imagination, the free word, over terror and oppression, and could thus become a watchword for the intelligentsia. … The publication of THE MASTER AND MARGARITA was taken as a proof of the assertion. … To portray that experience with such candour required another sort of freedom and a love for something more than ‘culture’. …

Set in 1930’s Moscow, Part One begins with the appearance of Satan and his retinue of characters wreaking havoc and particularly targeting the literary elite, represented as The Master, an embittered author, who the persecuted poet, Ivan Ponyrev, meets in an asylum. Another strand is set in the time of the Jerusalem of Pontius Pilate during the trial of Jesus the Nazarene. Pilate identifies with Jesus and reluctantly resigns himself to the execution of Jesus. Part Two introduces the mistress of the Master, Margarita, who meets Satan and becomes a witch with supernatural powers, and after practicing some of the powers, such as an ability to fly, co-hosts with Satan the great Spring Ball. She receives a reward from Satan and claims back the Master to live in peace but not in light – they are condemned to live in limbo not deserving the glories of heaven nor the punishments of hell, whereas Pontius Pilate is released from hell to travel to heaven. This is a very simplified summary (I think). The novel contrasts good/evil; innocence/guilt; courage/cowardice; love/lust (sexuality).

The performance created by Complicite is approximately 195 minutes long with one interval. The Director is Simon McBurney; the Set Design by Es Devlin; Costumes by Christina Cunningham; Lighting by Paul Anderson; Sound by Gareth Fry; Video by Finn Ross; 3D Animation by Luke Halls (Third Company Ltd); Puppetry by Blind Summit Theatre. All of these artists make spectacular contributions in attempting to bring clarity to this immense undertaking. But it is too ‘busy’, too ‘unwieldily” to assist – it, rather adds up to confusing and obfuscating the adaptation, annihilating it to a kind of objective tedium (maybe, the source material is that already?).

The actors give sterling commitment to the developed scenario, and maybe, understand, believe, that they are making a clear narrative and/or metaphoric swathe of communication through the Bulgakov original for the audience, and certainly, their apparent certainty, indicates that. Paul Rhys was The Master. Susan Lynch was Margarita (I liked her a lot – and, not because she was, mostly, naked). Toby Sedgwick, Ajay Naidu and a puppet sharing the responsibility of the Woland role (Satan). Tim McMullan as Pontius Pilate. Cesar Sarachu as Yeshua Ha-Notsri (Jesus) and Robert Luckay as Judas.

Alas, I was lost and left behind in the experience of the performance. The work became a feat of technological creation to be objectively admired, overriding any humanity that the source material may have been able to elicit from me. Mind you, you do have my earlier confession that I have never been able to finish a reading of the novel, and, so, may find the material just unappealing, unreachable for/to my soul. This was not the case with the last project of Complicite that I saw: A DISAPPEARING NUMBER, and, so, I was disappointed. I felt hollowed out, exhausted and frustrated, full of awe for the technical achievements but empty around What It May Have Been About.

The great thing was, despite the length of the work and the density of the material in all its offers, the audience I sat among, and there were many, many young school students, were attentive and absorbed. Respectful and quiet. Maybe it is just me and this Bulgakov work. But, then my two companions, one with me, another attending a different night, on my encouragement, were similarly bewildered and disappointed. You can’t get them all, I guess. You can’t win them all, I guess. The journey is the thing, I guess. Although, when the goal is ‘rung’ too, it is a better thing to have endured.

I have read several other adaptations and seen two other versions. There are over 20 versions recorded in google, so someone thinks this work is important and translatable to the stage. I have yet to be persuaded.

P.S. At the Saatchi Gallery there was an exhibition of New Art From Russia. There was photographic work by Sergei Vasiliev from his work of tattoo designs on the bodies of prisoners; some photographs by Vikenti Nilin from his From the Neighbours Series 1993-present; and examples from the 413 photograph collection of Boris Mikhailov, Case History 1997-98 – “Fifteen years on, it is still a startling chronicle of the extremities of life on the  streets for suddenly destitute members of society – the abandoned working class, young and old, chronically poor, and newly homeless individuals who fell through the cracks of a system now without a net, failed by the promises of Perestroika and capitalism. A carnival of desperate characters whether under the influence, lost or larking about, his Goya-like players put a face to the anonymous despair of a public ideology gone bankrupt. It is one of the most frank documents of the human condition in times of desperation” – from the catalogue entry BREAKING THE ICE: MOSCOW ART 1960-80’S.

This exhibition, particularly the black and white photographs were a disturbing experience for me, that seemed to ricochet in/around my mind while watching THE MASTER AND MARGARITA. Tragic and ominous.