“Cowardice is the worst sin” is a phrase often repeated in Mikhail Bulgakov’s hallucinatory satire The Master and Margarita. It is certainly not an accusation that can be levelled at Complicite’s production – it is a bold, cacophonous, at times baffling play that never flinches at the challenge of adapting the seemingly unadaptable.
It opens with a scene of utter confusion, with the 16-strong cast simultaneously repeating a series of apparently unrelated tasks, which director Simon McBurney proceeds to skilfully weave into a narrative.
Bulgakov’s nightmarish tale of madness and despair charts the arrival of the devil and his entourage (including a giant demonic cat named Behemoth) in 1930s Moscow, where they set about exposing the greed and hypocrisy of the emerging bourgeoisie, starting with the city’s literary clique. This self-satisfied bunch is responsible for rejecting an apparent masterpiece retelling the story of Pontius Pilate (accurately, if the devil is to be believed) on the grounds that religion is dead – a sentiment the devil is, perhaps understandably, unimpressed by.
Pilate and Jesus Christ become characters in a sub plot, and the narrative flits and overlaps between the two. It’s as easy to follow as it sounds.
At times the entire house of cards comes dangerously close to collapsing into incoherence, especially towards the end of the first half, when the various layers are stacked so high you fear you may never see daylight again. But a clear vision from McBurney and a series of exemplary performances – especially Paul Rhys as the eponymous Master – just about keep the threads from irrevocably tangling.
The stage seamlessly transforms from snow-swept Moscow to the baking evenings of Jerusalem to shabby inner-city flats with the help of some breathtaking projection and lighting effects. These are used to spectacular effect to create the impression the beguiling Sinaed Matthews’ Margarita is flying through the streets of Moscow (naked. She’s naked a lot. Really, a lot).
Welcome light relief comes from Behemoth, the foul-mouthed, sexually sadistic cockney moggy, who extolls the virtues of wearing a bow tie but shirks wearing trousers. It is safe to say the adaptation takes liberties with the source material – but they are liberties you suspect the author would wholeheartedly approve of.
Some of the biting satire of Bulgakov’s novel is lost amid the general air of confusion (a dazzling variety show excepted), with Complicite instead crafting a very human, often touching tale of love and loss and redemption.
There are plenty of surprises along the way, with the thrashing twists in the tail wonderfully orchestrated by McBurney.
The Master and Margarita requires a degree of work from its audience – if you haven’t broken out in a sweat before the halfway point you’re doing something wrong – but if you’re willing to leap in headfirst, you might not see a better play this year.
First published in City A.M.