Pontius Pilate is deciding the fate of Ha-Notsri (aka Jesus) in Herod’s palace. In Stalin’s Moscow, meanwhile, the Devil (aka Woland) stalks the streets. One man, the Master (aka Mikhail Bulgakov), can reconcile these opposing cosmic forces. But he is languishing in a mental asylum. Bulgakov’s Manichaean acid trip avant la lettre, The Master and Margarita, has been brought to life by Complicite at the Barbican (until 19 January). With spectacular video projections, and making clever use of satellite maps, Simon McBurney’s production whisks us from Moscow to Yalta, back to 1 AD, into the epicentre of the Procurator’s headache, and over into the fifth dimension.
Well-judged scene splicing and role doubling bring out the intersecting plots’ myriad echoes and reflections. Paul Rhys alternates flawlessly between a steely Woland, tempered with old-world wit, and the neurasthenic Master in his hospital bed. César Sarachu has a mime artist’s captivating physical presence. Whether spread-eagled on Golgotha or doing a tap-dance filler at the Variety before Woland’s black magic show, he draws all eyes irresistibly to him. Though a few set-pieces are over the top, there are moments of balletic genius — as when outraged Muscovites act the flames lapping at the Master’s burning manuscript. And amid this phantasmagoria a poignant love story plays out over winding Shostakovich periods. But what does it all mean?
The apocalyptic finale seems to bring a life-changing secret within our grasp — only for it to slip through our fingers at the last moment.