|Left to Right: Ivan Bezdomny, Woland, Berlioz
Photo Credit: Hugo Glendinning
The Master and Margarita
(Tuesday 15th January 2013. Barbican Theatre. Review by Rob Edgar)
This weekend saw the final performances at the Barbican of the theatrical adaptation by Complicité (directed by Simon McBurney) of Soviet author Mikhail Bulgakov’s classic piece of anti-Stalinist satire, The Master and Margarita, in its second run.
I had been intrigued to observe what Michael Billington – in his Guardian review of the first run – had called the “insatiably restless kaleidoscope of moods”. In truth, all aspects of the production seemed to add in the subtle ways: the stage design, the remarkable fluidity of the set changes, the background music accompanying some of the action, and, unusually, the use of video cameras.
Perhaps most striking, however, was the use of music. Sound designer Gareth Fry used timbres that would not have been out of place in a horror film, the screeches of cymbal harmonics during sudden outbursts of violence made the audience jump out of their seats for example, and during the first scene set in Jerusalem, Pilate’s headache was accompanied by a continuous high pitched buzzing noise that made us squirm. The satanic ball was set to the Soviet/Russian composer Alfred Schnittke’s grotesque and surreal Concerto Grosso, the frenzied Presto from his Cello Sonata No.1 denoted panic throughout the production, the grim majesty of his String Trio complimented Woland’s (played by Paul Rhys) dark and mysterious character superbly and the cathartic melancholy of the Agitato from the String Quartet No.2 accompanied the burning of the Master’s (also played by Rhys in a delicious twist) book sublimely.
Simon McBurney’s brother Gerard is a composer, teacher, and also a specialist in the Soviet music of this era, but he informed us that his input into this production had been minimal. Simon McBurney did, however give his brother a tip of the hat with a short piece with Hawaiian guitar – reflecting a curious 1930’s Soviet fashion (appearing, perhaps most famously in the last movement of Shostakovich’s Jazz Suite No.1) – a fragment from the music which Gerard McBurney wrote for another, earlier Complicité production, Out of a House Walked a Man .
Schnittke and Bulgakov are an ideal match; there’s a real sense of the madcap, the grotesque and the sarcastic in much of Schnittke’s music, it borrows very heavily from a multitude of different points in musical history and consolidates into one piece of music (a style known as polystylism, of which Schnittke was very much a pioneer). Bulgakov’s story reflects the terrifying and oppressive Stalinist regime (the book was finished at the end of the 30’s, the hight of the Show trials) by flitting relentlessly from the 1930’s Soviet Union, to Jerusalem at the time of Jesus, to the phantasmagoria of the devil’s world all the while beating out the message “people never change.”