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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Barbican


  (L to R) Richard Katz, Josie Daxter, Henry Pettigrew, Sinéad Matthews and Paul Rhys/ Ph: Tristram Kenton

To watch a Complicite production is to stand on the leading edge of theatrical evolution. The theatre company's collective imaginations – marshaled by director Simon McBurney – have over the years presented high- and low-tech techniques rarely if ever seen on stage, and then woven them into stories that are often epic in scale and, in the best productions, climax in an almost unbearable poignancy. I'm a fan. There is no company whose productions I await with more anticipation than those by Complicite.

This may be reassuring if you know the intimidating bare essentials about their latest offering – an adaptation of Mikhail Bulgakov's 450-page hallucinogenic, 1940 novel – and that it lasts well over three hours, which is longer than any show not written by Shakespeare has a right to ask an audience to stay seated. 

McBurney has said he has lost sleep over this production. And you can see why. Bulgakov's metaphorical tale presents a multiplicity of challenges for the stage. It draws parallels between 1st-century Jerusalem ruled by Pontius Pilate and 21st-century Moscow ruled by an unseen Stalin. Both are here cities stalked by paranoia and the devil, though it is Moscow in which most of the action takes place. 

The story is largely narrated by the Master novelist (Paul Rhys) of the title who languishes in a communist lunatic asylum. We lurch from Moscow to the biblical holy city and then vault alarmingly across the dour Russian capital. All this is achieved with yet more cutting-edge effects.

The danger, not entirely avoided, is that they dominate the evening. Perhaps most challenging of all is the book's most famous scene in which the Master's lover and muse Margarita (Sinéad Matthews) flies naked across the city to a ball hosted by the devil and populated by the last century's despots and mass murderers. (The guest list has been updated to include Hitler, whose crimes had yet to be fully recognised when Bulgakov died in 1940, and Saddam Hussein) So the question with which McBurney has had to grapple is, how do you make a woman fly on stage without recourse to Peter Pan-style cables or using that other favourite theatrical device overused by directors with a lack of ideas: the audience's imagination?

The answer turns out to be yet another example of Complicite pushing at the forefront of theatrical evolution. Hitching a ride on images projected onto a purpose-built brick wall, we zoom over Moscow like a Google Maps satellite. The effects climax when a block of flats, the main structure of Es Devlin's set, appears to crumble to the ground. But perspective is always changing; points of view are constantly shifting. And then the effects climax again when Master and Margarita fly through Moscow's night sky on a horse made of animated chairs.

More subtly, the mood and rhythms of a city are deftly realised with scenes on subway trains and parks. 

But if there is a price to pay for the spectacular visuals, it is that the show lacks the intimacy of past Complicte productions. Subsequently the umbilical link between the audience's lives and those of the characters is absent here. Though to be fair, that was always going to be a hard ask when two of the characters are Pontius Pilate and Jesus, who appears to the Roman ruler like a Jew emerging from a 20th-century concentration camp.

When has a show ever been so simultaneously exhausting and exhilarating? Possibly never.


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