Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita does not lend itself to adaption for stage. Set in Moscow during the darkest days of Stalinist rule, it tells of a visit to the city by Satan and his retinue.
The story of their romp through this world is woven together with a strange retelling of the Biblical crucifixion story, focusing on the relationship between Pontius Pilate and Jesus.
The latter story, it turns out, is the theme of a manuscript written by a Moscow based author known as the Master. It goes unpublished because of the attitude of the literary establishment.
The Master’s rejection by the Stalinist intelligentsia reflects Bulgakov’s own fate after 1929.
He ends up in an asylum and it is left to his lover, Margarita, to find a way to redeem him—with a little supernatural assistance from Satan.
The novel is at once a satire directed against Stalinism, a love story and a philosophical meditation on morality and personal courage.
The hugely inventive theatre company Complicite and its director Simon McBurney have produced a dazzling staging of the novel.
It uses animation, video and projection to bring Bulgakov’s masterpiece to life.
So when an enchanted Margarita takes to the Moscow skies at night we see her body flying across the city displayed on the walls of the theatre.
The play relies heavily on the humour of the novel. The first half careers along well, but the second—in which Bulgakov supplies fewer gags—is less coherent.
There are also, as in other recent Complicite productions, a couple of ham-fisted and unnecessary attempts to make the play “relevant”, for instance by having actors directly address the audience.
But the biggest problem for any staging of the novel is finding a substitute for its distinctive narrative voice, which Bulgakov laboured for 12 years to perfect.
In the book this shifts between a mixture of ironic detachment and sardonic wit in the Moscow scenes, to a more neutral tone when describing Jerusalem under Pilate.
Without this to hold the threads together, the play at times unravels into a series of chaotic episodes. Nonetheless, for its sheer visual thrill and energy this play is worth seeing.
The Master and Margarita
written by Mikhail Bulgakov
directed by Simon McBurney
Barbican Theatre until 7 April