Movies, Theatre

The Master and Margarita – Overwhelming

tumblr_m82v9kIRBd1rr3yo0o1_1280What 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.Toby Sedgwick and Ajay Naidu in The Master and Margarita at the Barbican

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.

2818c3c27b417f80c51b20098984f604Yet at other times I was completely mesmerised by what is up there amongst the most amazing pieces of theatre I have ever seen. Modern, sensory, aggressive, energetic and challenging.

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.



Fuerzabruta – wow!

GetAttachmentThis show has to be seen to be believed! And it really has to be seen because it is jaw droppingly brilliant.

And literally so. I had my mouth wide open pretty much throughout the 80 minute duration of Fuerzabruta, marveling at what was going on in front and mostly above me and waiting with excited nervousness for what the hell was going to happen next. And I had seen it before six years ago.

But what is it? Well that isn’t so easy to answer because it is almost indescribable. Visually stunning is what it is. Mind blowing is what it is. But it really defies any sort of genre categorisation.

The prosaic facts are that it is on at the Roundhouse in Camden and is an Argentinean “post modern theatre show” (as wikipedia describes it).

What this apparently means is a raucous, loud, intense, in your face, part circus, part modern dance, part techno rave, with incredible stunts performed on all manner of stage craft, all over the theatre’s space.

There is a man running on a conveyor belt through walls while being shot at, there are ballet dancers running around the walls of the theatre Spiderman like, there is a kind of fantastical battle between a man on a woman on a huge disc thing spinning above the audience’s heads, there are huge tanks of water lowered from the ceiling with mermaid like women dancing in them, there are people crawling on a huge see-through plastic sheet that has been inflated above the audience, there are people flying down through this and pulling audience members up from the floor.

And all this is done to a thumping soundtrack, with a lot of live primal drumming, screaming and shouting, strobe lighting, wild dancing and things being smashed.Performers+from+Fuerza+Bruta

It is exhausting just to watch it! God knows how the relatively few performers manage to get through all this but their enthusiasm, along with the intensity and sheer wonder of it all, is incredibly infectious.

And the audience are left no choice but to participate in it all, having to move around as the sets change position and literally invade the space the crowd were once standing in. The water tanks descend so low that hands rise from the crowd to literally touch the membrane the dancers are sliding and crashing about on. The climatic scene relies on the audience to move the set across their heads.

And believe me, I am no fan of dancing, especially to this type of music, but it is hard not to such is the exuberant joy of it all.

And that I think is what it is all about. There is no discernible plot or meaning to any of it. But who cares, because it is so much fun. In fact the performers seem to have more fun than the audience. But who can blame them. I wanna do what they do! Though how do they do it!

The show perhaps does not have quite the same sense of astonishment on a second viewing and it feels like it has been padded out a bit unnecessarily. But I still loved it.

Fuerzabruta at the Roundhouse in LondonIt is also not for everyone. There were some young kids and elderly people in the audience and why the hell not, but you gotta be prepared for a club-like experience regarding the music, lights and volume. You also gotta be reasonably open-minded, as this is like nothing you have seen before.

But even if that isn’t you, and even if you hate the show, as I said, it has to be seen to be believed.

So go buy tickets now. It is on for another two weeks and there are a handful of tickets left. If you hate it, you’ll have had an experience unlike any other. And most people are gonna love it.


La Boheme – An unnatural taste worth acquiring

Extra La Boheme PFPWhat do I know about opera? Well pretty much nothing. I saw Carmen at the Royal Albert Hall years ago and wasn’t sure at all what I thought of it.

And that was my only experience…. until seeing the sort of mini opera La Boheme by the Opera Up Close company at the small Charing Cross theatre this week, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

Opera, I think, is like olives. It is a very unusual taste which needs to be acquired before it can really be enjoyed (I put seafood and modern art in the same categories).

And as it turns out, this version of La Boheme, makes a pretty good place to start one’s initiation. It almost feels like opera for beginners.

For starters it costs considerably less than the full-blown productions at the Royal Opera House. It is also short (2 hours, with two intervals).

But the main attraction for the beginner is that lyrics are sung in English. This makes it completely understandable and relatively easy to follow.

The story (which though set in modern times seems to closely follow Puccini’s original) is a straightforward tragic love story. It begins with four artist friends in the hip East London area of Dalston, fooling about in their flat on Christmas Eve before heading down the pub. One, a struggling writer, meets and falls in love with his frail neighbour.

Unused to operatic singing, I was somewhat bemused by the opening, where the characters sing about David Cameron, their laptops and multi-tasking! But soon the incongruity of the style and the subject became amusing and almost seemed like an affectionate satire on opera’s over the topness.

This light and amusing first act is followed by an interval during which the audience are encouraged by actors dotted about the theatre to get up and wander around and head to the bar at the back.

The action starts up again in a wonderful second act with the audience now spread all over the place – sitting or standing in the aisles – as the opera takes place across the whole theatre in a raucous Christmas eve pub scene. At one point one of the main characters was stood right next to me singing her lungs out to the other characters on the other side of the room. Quite an experience.

The third act takes place several months later with the relationship of the two central lovers now fraught and heading towards tragedy. Enhanced by the intimacy of the theatre, the final act is extremely moving and beautiful.

Although not an opera aficionado I do like musicals. And I have wanted to see La Boheme since seeing and loving the musical Rent years ago (as well as its hysterical parody in Team America).

Rent of course is based on La Boheme and the story, and even particular scenes, are remarkably similar as well as the main musical theme which runs throughout both the musical and the opera.

I hear a lot of people complain that they don’t like musicals because they are sentimental and melodramatic with overly mannered or fake performances and singing.

I don’t necessary disagree with this, but I quite like it none the less. But so far, opera seems to me equally sentimental and melodramatic.

A big difference is clearly the music, with musicals using popular music with melodies and rhyme which are totally familiar and therefore accessible.

Opera on the other hand, like classical music generally, has very complex musical arrangements with few hooks or motifs to latch onto.

But if people think singing in musicals is over the top, well, operatic singing seems to me a completely bizarre and ridiculously mannered style. It is positively unnatural! Although during La Boheme I did get used to it.

Regarding the music, I found La Boheme a little un-engaging. Maybe, as this feels like a mini opera with the musical accompaniment being provided by a sole pianist (who plays impressively non-stop throughout), this version is not representative. And my non-appreciation of the music may be more about my own unfamiliarity with the style more than anything else.

None the less this was completely engaging theatre. Extremely entertaining, clever and ultimately very moving. I am still not sure exactly what I think about opera, but after seeing this show, I am sure that it is a taste that, like olives and seafood, will be well worth acquiring.