Pioneering physical theater company Complicite is working at new levels of complexity and sophistication in this multimedia adaptation of Bulgakov’s celebrated novel. Written in response to the oppression of Stalin’s USSR, the narrative moves between 1930s Moscow and Jerusalem at the time of Christ, its tone and style shifting from satire to romance to dark surreal fantasy. To its trademark style of finely observed acting combined with choreographed group movement, Complicite has added 3D projections and live video feeds to give auds the intoxicating feeling of moving through a multisensory imaginative world.
The story takes place on (at least) three levels. The Devil, in the guise of a professor of black magic named Woland (Paul Rhys) visits Moscow with his retinue, which includes a foul-mouthed, human-sized black cat (excellent puppetry by Blind Summit). Poet Ivan Bezdomny (Richard Katz), in trying to expose the group’s terrorizing of the literary elite, ends up in an insane asylum and meets a writer called the Master (Rhys), whose failed novel treats the relationship between Pontius Pilate (Tim McMullan) and Jesus (Cesar Sarachu). In the story’s second half, the Master’s devoted lover Margarita (Sinead Matthews), at the invitation of the Devil, becomes a witch, journeys through the Soviet underworld, and ends up earning herself and the Master an eternal life together.
The material twists, turns and folds in on itself, satirically emulating the elaborated nature of Stalinist systems, in which nothing is what it seems. The script — co-authored by Edward Kemp, director Simon McBurney and the company — gives auds an anchor in the narrator figure of Koroviev (Angus Wright), a member of Woland’s gang, who appears periodically to re-orient the storytelling. But the confidence of McBurney’s staging and the company’s acting urges the audience to let the story sweep them along.
In their previous two touring productions, “A Disappearing Number” and “Shun-Kin,” Complicite’s devised physical storytelling was starting to look dated. But here the possibilities afforded by the interaction of moving bodies and live and recorded media give the production an up-to-the-minute feel: Shifting laser-lines of light on the stage floor delineate playing areas and give a sense of claustrophobia and enclosure. A photographic map of Moscow projected on the back wall animates and zooms in, Google Street View-like, on a given neighborhood, placing the ensuing scene within the creepy context of surveillance. The Master and Margarita’s final, joyous flight through the skies has the thesps lying on the stage floor amid turned-over chairs which, when projected onto the back wall and animated, simulates a giant flying horse.
The show emphasizes the dark and melancholy aspects of Bulgakov’s story, sometimes at the expense of humor. Coupled with a three-hours-plus playing time, it’s far from a lighthearted evening’s entertainment.
But the production is sterling European festival fare; the fact that it sold out a three-week-run at the 1,000-seat Barbican in advance of opening indicates the high value London theatergoers continue to place on the Complicite brand. The production would sit comfortably on university campuses and in high-end arts centers Stateside.