Theatre Review: The Master and Margarita at the Barbican

13:04 26 March 2012

In love: (From left) Sinead Matthews as Margarita, Paul Rhys as the Master, and Richard Katz as fellow writer Ivan Nikolayich Bezdomny, in The Master and Margarita. Picture: Tristram Kenton

In love: (From left) Sinead Matthews as Margarita, Paul Rhys as the Master, and Richard Katz as fellow writer Ivan Nikolayich Bezdomny, in The Master and Margarita. Picture: Tristram Kenton

Tristram Kenton

Devilish imagings are in overdrive as communist Russia mingles with hell in The Master and Margarita

Whispering madness is conjured with devilish imaging from a black stage and 16 wooden chairs in Complicite’s new production The Master and Margarita.

A massive wall, the bleak face of communist Russia in brick form, looms over the empty stage as film is projected onto it transporting us from Moscow to a lunatic asylum and onto a grand gothic ball in hell.

Director Simon McBurney’s imagination goes into overdrive as three stories are interwoven in a complex anti-morality tale.

A Russian writer sees his friend accidentally beheaded, after a mysterious stranger predicts the death, and is incarcerated in an insane asylum.

There he meets another author, the Master (Paul Rhys), who has been imprisoned for writing a novel about Pontius Pilate, separating him from his beloved Margarita (Sinéad Matthews). She then enters into a Faustian pact with the mysterious stranger in a frantic effort to find her lost love and descends into hell for a decadent ball.

Somewhere in there the Master’s novel, a didactic argument between Pilate and Jesus that moves into the crucifixion story, is also dramatized.

There are many contradictions in the production. This is a play about Satan and Jesus even though the communism tells us neither exist. It is about the failure of compassion and the redemptive power of love. It is about the idea that hell is more fun than heaven in a sadomasochistic kind of a way.

Some of the madness seems gratuitous, like the foul-mouthed sexually promiscuous cat Behemoth. Other parts are simply fascinating, like the brilliant performance of Paul Rhys as the Master and lisping devil Woland.

The sheer volume of ideas comes at the expense of clarity. But Complicite’s pioneering use of light and optical illusion to create 3D worlds that span centuries and philosophies is better than ever.

* Showing at the Barbican in Silk Street, EC2, until Saturday, April 7.

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