Complicite’s adaptation of Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel The Master and the Margarita ranks amongst one of the best productions I have ever seen. It possibly helps that I pretty much idolise Complicite as a company, but I like to think that my powers of judgement are not removed by this. Oddly, it seems one of the reasons I found the production so enjoyable was one of the reasons Michael Billington found it hard to take.
Simon McBurney’s production, according to Billington,“batters the senses in a way that leaves you faintly exhausted”. I wouldn’t disagree with the first part of this statement, but for me the result of this sense battering left me more exhilarated than exhausted. This sensory experience is similar to that felt during another of my top ranking productions – Headlong’s Earthquakes in London. Now, evidently there is a significant age difference between Billington and myself and I’m wondering if this has anything to do with our obviously different theatrical tastes. Does the younger generation of theatre goers seek an experience that really is an experience not only on an intellectual level, but something to be felt physically as the senses are – in a sense – assaulted?
Certainly the creation of a sensory environment is something I consider a vital part of my own theatre making practice, and the ability to really make us feel is part of the magic of theatre that I most treasure. When I’m left feeling tingly, crying, no idea what to do, shaking, physically reviled … this is when I’m most seduced by theatre. But is this because I’m the product of a generation where all is loud, fast paced and multi-sensory; where the ability to make us pause and think is secondary to making us feel, and is this a bad thing?
Pure sensory battering, however, I wouldn’t find enjoyable in the slightest. Gratuitous abuse of theatre’s power does not a good production make. What made The Master and the Margarita so brilliant for me was its creation of Bulgakov’s world so strongly that we couldn’t help but be drawn in. The constant shifting between places, worlds and images was a delight to watch and be engaged in. I particularly enjoyed the devil’s cat – an oversized and very foul mouthed puppet – and the music that went along with this cat’s moments of brutality. In these fast paced, slick and generally grotesque moments I was somewhat reminded of the work of Quentin Tarantino – not a stranger to the idea of battering the sense. But in this show such battering moments were complimented by quieter moments of storytelling, and ensemble performances that really shone.
I haven’t read Bulgakov’s novel, although like many – I’m sure – it has now found its way onto my ‘to read’ list, so can’t really comment on this production’s likeness to it. But as a feat of theatrical play and storytelling it was completely spellbinding.
Sometimes I think the brilliance of the magic of theatre can be forgotten and that Complicite’s thoughtfully executed battering of the senses can be taken as an example of how to work this magic. Theatre can make us think but, perhaps more importantly, it can really really make us feel.