It was such a treat to see Simon McBurney/Complicité’s production of Bulgakov’s masterpiece The Master and Margarita in Paris last week. The trek out to Bobigny and the not exactly congenial experience of theatre MC93 was quickly forgotten by what was, I thought, a riveting and masterful production.
I was mesmerized for three hours by the vivacity of the production, and especially in its capturing of the complexity of Bulgakov’s narrative. The weaving together of literary references, German philosophy, the asceticism and oppression of Stalinist 1930s Moscow, Soviet and Russian history, Goethe’s Faust and particularly when Margarita makes a pact with the devil who has come to visit Moscow. And McBurney does not stop there, the centrality of the variety theatre where the devil stages his show revels in the evil and excess that befits Satan, while Biblical Jerusalem is pervaded by the solemnity that befits Pontius Pilate’s trial of Jesus. In a post-World War II world, it would be difficult not to also note the frequent references to the Holocaust in McBurney’s production. And with it, necessarily, comes to mind the contemporary conflict of Israel and Palestine. While the Jewish pogroms were in full force not long before Bulgakov wrote his book, it's the contemporary resonances that are often most striking. In other instances, McBurney's production makes the connection between eras for us: the narrative thread about Julius Cesar and his arrest of criminals ricochets through Soviet Russia’s twentieth century of dictatorships and oppressive violent regimes. This is a work of immense reach.
As theatre McBurney and Complicité bring a masterful use of light and sound to the text. The set, the spaces it defined, the changing dimensions of these spaces, the changing perspectives from which the audience looks at the worlds created on stage — at times for the briefest of periods — were all entirely articulated by light and sound. My friend Anne thought that it bore certain resemblances to the Expressionist cinema's use of light. It’s true that Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita engages the confusion between the internal world of the mind and the external historical world, but I am not convinced that the dramatic use of light and sound was expressionist. Rather, if it is to be compared to any of the interwar German art forms, it has to be Erwin Piscator’s political theatre of the 1920s. Piscator begins the conversation that Complicité takes to overwhelming ends with the use of film and video images to extend the narrative space and thematic concerns. For Piscator, the use of film images politicized the individual’s thoughts and actions, carrying them into the public sphere beyond the literal and metaphysical prison walls. Moving images created new spaces and places both real and imaginary in the 1920s. McBurney uses lighting – which includes the video images that saturate the backdrop to open up new spaces, new perspectives, new dreams — as a way of moving between scenes as well as to confound the narrative threads. So, for example, in The Master and Margarita, the video images enable what can only be described as a cinematic edit between the poet’s imagination and the asceticism of everyday bureaucratic life in Stalinist Russia in a split second.
The reviewer in The Guardian bemoaned the coldness of the production, a coldness he identified as deriving from the video images and projection. While I didn't experience this coldness, if the use of the moving images and sounds are seen in the tradition of the great political theatres of Europe in the 1920s, I wonder if it’s a coldness that serves the purpose of provocation? Is it a coldness of the order that would become known as Brechtian distanciation?
Another element of McBurney’s production that I enjoyed was its focus on Moscow, indeed the visual and textual use of Moscow to enable the unpredictable geography of the mind. Moscow is, at the same time, very real: its spatial organization and the fact that, as it is pointed out over and over again in the play, it was the first city with electricity, are also the stage for a wonderful modernist drama. Thus, I would argue that this production has a much stronger grounding in political reality than the German Expressionist films of the 1920s. The very compelling narrative about the poet or writer, who is really a historian, incarcerated for a novel he wrote about Pontius Pilate, in an atheist, communist world opens up to the real politics of centuries, as they pervade the streets and fill the air of a very real city.
Lastly, it has to be acknowledged that the piece is given its brains by Bulgakov, its complex narrative, its layer upon layer of politics, literature, oppression, dictatorship, history, and imagination. But what McBurney gives the play is an intense visual life that does what all good staged theatre should: it compliments and complements Bulgakov’s literary expertise.