Complicite’s The Master and Margarita; an assault on the senses or a sensuous display of theatricality?

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.

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One response to “Complicite’s The Master and Margarita; an assault on the senses or a sensuous display of theatricality?

  1. James Hamilton

    It was the first Complicite production I’ve ever seen. I thought it was very good in many respects, but it didn’t really make me feel anything apart from “WHIZZ, BANG, WALLOP, WOW” for three very long hours. And as a side-note: the bit when he steps out and starts ticking off the audience for having iPhones was one of the most cringeworthy things I have ever, ever witnessed (this coming from Sanity Valve’s producer).

    More to the point: I didn’t feel compassion, fear, anxiety, “tingly” – at all. I agree that the best theatre does that – my favourite theatre and comedy work certainly does on some level. But personally, I felt Complcite’s show was all about bombast and spectacle with no room left for much else. Spectacular and bombastic it certainly was, and I was extremely impressed by some of the rather marvellous technical tricks they pulled off. Visually, it was gorgeous. Emotionally? It left me cold.

    I think theatre needs to be more intimate and personal to create the kind of feelings in me that you describe. Although much of what Complicite did was/is brilliant, I found it at the expense of what really matters to me in theatre: storytelling, communication, honesty. I’ve never seen theatre that leaves me “no idea what to do, shaking” – but I’m with Billington on this. Theatre can wrench your heart out when it wants to. Complicite wrenched my eyes out. Impressive and good though it was, I wouldn’t pay to go see another Complicite show unless they promised something much more intimate.

    PS: Aside from these criticisms, any production that attempts to blatantly preach at me, even in a humourous way, can fuck right off. I’ll decide whether it relates to my own life or not – I don’t need you to tell me, Simon.

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