What a story! What a play! Epic. Not only for its almost 3 and half hour length, but for its multi layered stories set thousands of years apart. These include oppression in Stalinist Moscow and religious myth that are relayed with fantastical farce and gritty realism using gigantic video screens and an aggressive, confrontational theatrical style.
The running length actually flew by, because for the most part this was a seriously engaging and engrossing play, staged with staggering creativity and energy. Theatre at its best.
In fact I didn’t want it to end. And when it did end, and I was left with a multitude of questions, I wanted to watch it again straight away to try and make sense of some of it.
An impossible task though no doubt. For even Simon McBurney, the Director of theatre company Complicite’s take on the classic Russian novel The Master and Margarita staged at London’s Barbican, admits in the programme notes “the whole book is a mystery to me.”
But complete understanding is clearly not integral to the enjoyment of this story by Mikhail Bulgakov. Or perhaps more accurately, not integral to feeling its impact, as such was this play’s intensity, it is at times hard to enjoy. The stunning opening and most of the second half in fact left me feeling quite uncomfortable.
This is another literary adaptation whose source novel I have never read. In fact until having tickets for the play bought for me I had never heard of it. Which now, having done some research, seems incredible, such it seems is the novel’s stature as a masterpiece of the 20th century.
Director McBurney also says in the programme notes that he has lost count of how many people have told him it is their favourite novel. And the few people I mentioned I was going to see it to said the same.
So what is it about? Well how long you got?
On a literal level the play intertwines the story of a poet in Moscow in 1939 who sees a literary censor beheaded by a tram, is visited by the devil who shows him a conversation between Jesus Christ and Pontius Pilate, gets sent to a mental hospital where he meets a man who tells his own life story which involves writing a masterpiece of a novel about the same conversation between Christ and Pilate, is censored, and thrown in the hospital while his lover is taken to a midnight ball in hell (after the devil has performed a black magic show at a Moscow theatre) by Satan’s flunkies who also beat people up in Stalinist Russia. Oh and there is a demonic talking lewd cat too.
Got all that? Well I am not sure I have either even after seeing the play. And there were areas of it that I was really struggling to follow or stay engaged with. Yet there were other areas which were completely entrancing and profound.
The theatrical experience of this production matched the wild and wonderful story too. The energy from the performers was incredible, with a lot of running, a lot of complete nudity and a lot of intense dialogue. And there is a staggering revelation towards the end which left me in awe of one of the main actors.
Scenes in Stalinist Moscow would morph into Roman occupied Jerusalem, or hell, seamlessly with few stage props or sets. Scenes of quiet sensitivity and honesty were mixed up with bawdy stand up comedy and performers directly confronting audience members as if in a smutty pantomime.
The use of lighting effects and video was also extremely exciting. Close ups of the actors faces would be broadcast live on a huge video wall at the back of the stage. Overhead video of the actors provided optical illusion type effects against the video wall. The audience was also filmed and shown on this wall which creaked and cracked and crumbled throughout.
Some of these techniques did not work for me however, and there was often just too much going on. This detracted from the story which also had elements which I just did not like – the cat in particular and the scenes with the devil felt intellectually conceited. I also at times found it hard to feel emotionally engaged with the main characters.
Of course it is the themes of the story that underpin the whole experience of the play. And despite the criticisms of some areas already made, the subjects of freedom, literary expression, honesty, storytelling, living for art, love and ultimately forgiveness, emotionally resonated through incredibly powerful imagery and dialogue.
This is made all the more moving by the obvious autobiographical nature of parts of the story and Bulgakov’s knowledge that the book would never be published in the world he lived in.
So overwhelming yes, but deeply penetrating too. And now I can’t wait to read the novel.