The Master and Margarita, Barbican Theatre, London

A few years ago, three separate stage adaptations of Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita opened in a matter of weeks. My overall conclusion from that season was that you could go for either narrative coherence or the remarkable atmospheres generated in the novel but that it tended to be a trade-off between the two. Simon McBurney’s new version for Complicite bears this out.

McBurney opts for narrative, and principally that of the two titular characters and also the poet Bezdomny, incarcerated as mad for telling the bizarreries he has seen. Many of the other veins of Bulgakov’s novel are narrowed to capillary width. There is little of the satire of the literary committee Massolit or of the Variety Theatre. There is, despite the protestations of a programme essay, little sense of Moscow itself as a character. Crucially, there is only the bare minimum even of the infernal doings of Professor Woland and his demonic crew as they weave chaos into the city. McBurney does not do chaos.

What he does instead is complexity, which, when taken to a sufficient degree, may sometimes look like disorder but never really smells like it. The complexity here is not just of the movements of the cast of 16 on the stage but of image systems. Once again, movements on the floor are projected on the back wall to skew our dimensional perspective; also projected are satellite photos of Moscow (Gogol Earth?), moving grids and moirés of lines on the floor. Voiceovers and loops sound; musical motifs are probably chosen with an ear to significance but, beyond the use of the eerie intro to “Gimme Shelter” for several of Woland’s tricks, I could not identify them. The doubling of Woland with, first of all, the Master, and later, Yeshua Ha-Notsri (aka Jesus) is potentially interesting but drowns amid so much else bidding for attention.

The Complicite name can command a cast of the calibre of Angus Wright, Clive Mendus, Amanda Hadingue and Tamzin Griffin, even before one considers the principals. Paul Rhys is as intensely committed as ever as the Master (and Woland the first), and Richard Katz begins to catch him up on a few occasions as Bezdomny. As Margarita, Sinéad Matthews has little of the husky-little-girl vocal quality that often sets my teeth on edge but she mostly replaces it with shouting. Tim McMullan shakes off his trademark languor for a distraught Pontius Pilate. McBurney’s production cogently persuades you of the novel’s peculiar, compelling power, but ultimately does not convey it.

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