Woland is an imposing, uncanny man: a black-clad figure with a creepy grin, a vaudevillian with a penchant for rhetoric, a historian of mysticism and a polymath with particularly developed linguistic skills. His is a world of playful ambiguity, and in Simon McBurney’s stage adaptation of Mikhail Bulgakov’s complex and iconic novel for Complicite, he’s a man closely aligned to Satan himself.
Bulgakov’s novel carries with it some heavy cultural baggage; it was a novel frequently adapted for the stage in Eastern Europe in the 1970s and 1980s, making a strong comeback in countries like Poland, Hungary and Romania in the early 1990s, alongside its predecessor Heart of a Dog, a more transparent yet still sharp satire on the failure of communist radicalism seen through the prism of one man. This latter work was turned into an opera by Complicite in 2010. Given its censorship in Russia, its narrative intricacy, rhetorical ambiguity and its network of cultural and social references, The Master and Margarita remains one of the most popular Russian novels of the early twentieth century, characterized by bitter sarcasm and cunning psychological play. Complicite’s response to the text is a spectacular exercise in theatrical problem-solving, and yet there’s a timidity in its relationship with the original, their staging – though spectacular – ends up diluting the potency of the novel.
McBurney’s adaptation has a precise internal logic; an encounter between Pontius Pilate and Christ in Jerusalem is paralleled with the love story between Margarita and her Master. It’s a technically dazzling production, with a highly-developed visual language. The sense of trickery chimes with the theatricality of the novel. Projections are used to zoom in and out of Moscow locations vis satellite-portraits; objects are manipulated and transformed: a box-office shack becomes a deadly tram, a group of wooden chairs form the skeleton of a horse. Behemoth, Woland’s right-hand pervert, takes the form of a cunningly vulgar black cat, adding another layer of political mysticism to the piece. In this way, McBurney and the company bring out the novel’s many polarizations – drama and satire, fantasy and reality, fable and parable – whilst also emphasising its humanity. The superb performances only add to this. Paul Rhys is excellent as Woland, Sinead Matthews is powerful yet dependant as Margarita and Richard Katz also excels as the sceptical poet Ivan Bezdomny.
The production is underpinned by a desire to explore the shifting nature of human consciousness, though sometimes this comes at the expense of Bulgakov’s interest in authorship and autocracy. Woland and the Master are one and the same – a wink towards the idea of the unreliable narrator that governs the production. Complicite’s take on the novel is consistently energetic and inventive, yet it is sometimes in danger of being overwhelmed by its own stylization. Its dramaturgical landscape is all-too sterile and while the company capture the novel’s fantastical and surrealist qualities with aplomb, they pay less attention to its politics. This makes for a production with sizeable gaps; a satire that fails to bite into its subject matter. Soviet Russia itself is made myth; becoming part of the fabric of fable, instead of being its referent.