If you’re going to showcase a novel written in Soviet Russia, where better to do it than in the Barbican Centre, a building synonymous with the Brutalist style architecture of the 1960s and a brave attempt to house the masses.
We made our way to the theatre with no little amount of trepidation. Bulgakov’s 20th-century masterpiece is an incredibly complex work with three narratives and events so fantastical that a complete suspension of disbelief is required: is Simon McBurney trying to adapt the un-adaptable?
The action begins with Satan, going by the name Woland, and his vulgar black cat wreaking havoc on their brief sojourn in Soviet era Moscow. Set against this is a moving confrontation between Pontius Pilate and Yeshua (Jesus Christ) in ancient Jerusalem. A romantic love story between the novelist, Master, and his lover, Margarita, is then thrown into the mix.
There's an incredible slickness to this ever-shifting play: characters and sets transform themselves to fulfil different roles; props play many roles as ticket kiosks become trams and chairs become galloping horses. Full nudity, violence and severed heads abound: the production races through its three-hour run. Tremendous use is made of video projected scenery and close-up video real-time footage of the actors projected onto the back wall. Gareth Fry’s soundtrack jumps from Shostakovich to Schubert to the Rolling Stones with great effect.
The characters are thankfully strong enough to stand up to this sensory barrage. Sinead Matthews makes an excellent Margarita and bravely spends much of the second half naked. Tim McMullan also conveys the moral agony and dignity of Pontius Pilate well. We have one minor quibble: although we appreciate this was always going to be tricky, we’re not overly enamoured with the puppet-cat, Behemoth.
Yes, there are deviations and abbreviations from Bulgakov’s novel, however this is a superb feat in its own right and is well worth navigating through the incomprehensible walkways and corridors of the Barbican.
By Rachel Phillips