Master and Margarita

Making a spectacle of Stalinist Russia

By John Nathan, April 2, 2012

Barbican Theatre, London EC2

Complicite brings the magic of Bulgakov’s novel to the stage by the stunning delivery of special effects

Complicite brings the magic of Bulgakov’s novel to the stage by the stunning delivery of special effects

Of all Complicite's book adaptations, Bulgakov's mind-expanding novel is surely the most ambitious. Director Simon McBurney has said that everything is stageable, but how on earth do you depict a nude woman flying over Moscow to a ball hosted by the devil?

Or perhaps the more pertinent question is, how do you do it without using Peter Pan-style wires, or relying on that last resort used by theatre directors who cannot think of any good ideas - the audience's imagination?

McBurney, a truly visionary director, has never been guilty of that, and no one combines stunning stagecraft and poignancy the way Complicite does. The impossible job undertaken here is to turn Bulgakov's 450 pages of magical realism, in which a Stalinist Moscow is stalked by the devil, into something magically theatrical.

That they succeed is in large part due to the arresting imagery created by the cutting-edge use of projection technology. Some very special effects are delivered. An entire block of flats is convincingly razed to the ground, and yes, Margarita, lover of the Master writer who narrates much of Bulgakov's story from a cell in a communist lunatic asylum, does indeed fly over Moscow to a party populated by despots and murderers.

Parallels are drawn - between Jerusalem ruled by Pontius Pilate and the paranoid Russian capital - and links between the two eras are made. When an emaciated Jesus is brought before the first-century Roman ruler, it is hard not to think of the persecuted Jew in terms of Europe's 20th-century concentration camps and gulags.

The show is a stamina-sapping three-and-a-quarter hours. But vaulting across millennia and the geography of Russia's capital, it delivers a series of mesmerising adrenalin rushes. I could easily watch it again.

If I have a gripe, it is that, for once, Complicite have sacrificed poignancy for spectacle. But there is currently nothing more ambitious and triumphant on the London stage. (Tel: 020 7638 8891)


Almeida Theatre, London N1


VMichael Attenborough went to Naples to lend his production of Eduardo De Filippo's 1946 comedy some authenticity.

But aside from Samantha Spiro in the title role, a former prostitute who convinces businessman Domenico to marry her by pretending she is dying, there is little here that feels Neapolitan.

Robert Jones's picturesque design of a courtyard is an example of unreal realism - the kind of Italian square you can see only in Las Vegas.

The variously tanned-up cast do their best, but as is so often the case with British actors doing Latin temperaments, you can almost smell the RADA training.

Still, the always excellent Clive Wood is satisfyingly masculine as the duped spouse, and Spiro gives a peach of a performance as the woman who fights her way out of poverty and into Domenico's hard heart. (Tel: 020 7359 4404)

Last updated: 4:12pm, April 2 2012