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A CurtainUp London Review
The Master and Margarita
by Sebastian King
On a seemingly ordinary afternoon in Moscow, the poet Ivan Bezdomny (Richard Katz) is discussing philosophy with the atheist writer Berlioz (Clive Mendus), when they are interrupted by the arrival of Professor Woland, a mysterious figure in black. Joining their debate, he tells them the story of Pontius Pilate (Tim McMullan) and the Christ-figure Yeshua Ha-Notsri (Cesar Sarachu), before prophesying Berlioz’s death. When Woland disappears and his prophesy immediately comes true, Ivan soon finds himself incarcerated in an asylum. It is here that he first meets the Master (Paul Rhys), a writer who has written a novel startlingly similar to Woland’s story of Pontius Pilate. As the various worlds of the play collide, characters melt into one another and the lines between the real and the imagined, truth and fiction, good and evil begin to blur.
A cast of sixteen actors take on over 40 roles between them, led by Paul Rhys as the enigmatic Master, whose romance with Sinead Matthews’s Margarita is thought to have been based on Bulgakov’s passionate relationship with his third wife Elena Sergeevna. The ensemble work tirelessly, rarely leaving the stage except for quick costume changes, and there are particularly stand-out performances from Angus Wright and Ajay Naidu as sinister members of Woland’s retinue. Joining them is the red-eyed and foul-mouthed cat Behemoth, a menacing puppet designed by Blind Summit, who provides much of the humour of the play.
Sinead Matthews’s Margarita is a gothic vamp with a husky voice, and more than a passing resemblance to Sally Bowles. Her dark quest to save the Master, taking her through the skies of Moscow and leading her to a Satanic ball complete with faceless murderers, provides one of the most stunning and exciting visual sequences I’ve ever witnessed onstage.
The main feature of Es Devlin’s stark set is the façade of a Soviet housing block stretching across the back of the stage, occasionally brought to life by Finn Ross’s ingenious video design which occasionally sees characters’ faces appearing at the windows. With stylistic nods to an assortment of genres from film noir to vaudeville, McBurney’s production looks and sounds stunning, but it also forces its audience to think, and to engage in its various debates, questioning religion, authority and the legacy of literature.
The novel took Bulgakov 12 years to write in total, and Complicite’s production – with all its complexities and intricacies – certainly does it justice. This is epic theatre in every sense of the phrase, filling the Barbican’s vast stadium-like stage with sound and images providing theatregoers with an extraordinarily unforgettable multi-sensory feast.
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