Who among us, having fallen under the spell of a charismatic Devil, could resist his charms in favour of virtue? Or love or truth or peace? Mikhail Bulgakov asked these questions in his satire The Master and Margarita; he ridiculed the hypocrisy of blanket moral certainty as epitomised by tyrannical regimes. But owing to the strictures of Stalinist censorship, The Master and Margarita was never published during the author’s life. Here is a cry for freedom, a cry for moral courage – “the only sin is cowardice” – a cry for creativity.
The plot has three main strands: a tale of divided love between Margarita and the tortured Master; Pontius Pilate’s interrogation of Jesus Christ; Satan’s salutary pranks against the Soviet literati. Hundreds of characters operate in multiple dimensions of time, place, truth and lunacy. Locations flit between 1930s Moscow, Biblical Jerusalem and eternity. Magic abounds, and includes a dirty-talking cat.
Now in its second incarnation, Complicite’s production, directed by Simon McBurney, renders the novel faithfully and comprehensively. It has stagecraft that borders on wizardry, strong ensemble acting and intensive communion with the audience.
It is a dazzling technical – and technological – achievement. Satan’s ball, dizzying flurries of snow, a crucifixion infested with flies, and the dissolution of the universe, erupt in violent sensory detail. The adaptation is coherent (no mean feat); Es Devlin’s set, dominated by a grim Muscovite façade, is dynamic and flexible; and the combination of Gareth Fry’s sound, Paul Anderson’s lights and Finn Ross’s video projections is breathtaking. For such dense and expansive material, Complicite’s mode of expression is vigorously economical. It lacks neither wit, nor texture – far from it – but nothing goes for nothing, even the handling of basic props.
Tim McMullan’s Pilate is supremely saturnine – a heavy, wracked beast of man who forfeits his peace of mind. Susan Lynch (a newcomer to the cast) is incandescent, if rather gushy, as Margarita; Toby Sedgwick (also new) conjures an elastic, whimsical demon; and Cesar Sarachu’s emaciated Christ is delicate, dignified and – for such a part – mesmerically human.
The ensemble works with regimental unity of purpose and the story, you feel, is not simply told with skill and feeling, but given to the audience, eliciting an active spiritual collusion. The experience is communal: the communion feels magic, almost holy. McBurney is the master.