Come on, the Upper Sixth boys are putting on a show!

by Michael

I went to see The Master and Margarita (which finished its run at the Barbican tonight) a couple of weeks ago. I liked it overall, although the consistency of Theatre de Complicite‘s technique and style over the few performances of theirs I’ve seen over the years suggests rather than being an innovative company, they only ever had one aesthetic – that of the boys from the Upper Sixth putting on a show in the common room using nothing but the school furniture, the devils.

I mean, what they do is undoubtedly skillful and generally effective – the action flows beautifully – but the choices now seem to be default settings rather than actual choices. As we sat waiting for the start, the stage was set with smoke and 16 wooden chairs in a row. Wooden chairs again? Wow – you can make them into a train, a stage, a podium, a desk … chairs, even! What japes. Some elements seemed positively surplus to requirements, however, which goes against the (necessarily pretentious when you have considerable support and are presenting your work in the Barbican Theatre) ethos of only using what you have to hand – a window was indicated with a bar held by a performer/puppeteer to show whether it was open or closed but it was hard to read which way was open and it might have been better served to have used audio (as was done later to signal the opening and closing of doors (not the sound of the door/window opening/closing, but the change in ambient noise as a result, I mean)).

I went on a Monday night with a head full of cold and knowing only that Chris Goode had not liked it. I knew absolutely nothing of the novel but the adaptation gave a good sense of the chaos that seems to naturally haunt Russian novels, perhaps even Russian life. It rang true enough, the surreality of the story not too far a leap from the underlying situation. At times, I wondered what liberties the adaptation had taken – after all, sometimes the ‘scene’ has to take precedence in terms of its needs with respect to dialogue, action, form and even plot over the source text. But I got the feeling that this was faithful in general direction and in much of the detail. Of course, it is an adaptation of a book about a book which resolves itelf as a play about a book, and I wonder what is lost in not being able to read about and from an unpublishable manuscript…. Could it have been a play about an unperformable play, instead?

There was one obvious departure (or, rather, elaboration) from the source, which was a nice touch – a character complains of new technology and extends the rant to encompass iPads, iPods, mini this and mini that. Pointing cameras at the audience and projecting our image on the big screen, however, served only to reveal our insatiable capacity to wave and point when we see our own faces. Some other uses of video-feeds escaped me – and why was the opening composed of pre-recorded audio? Have faith in the live theatre. And microphones! Everyone miked up like Madonna. Have we given up on the basic skills of acting?

The melodrama of the initial third of the play generally employed Theatre de Complicite’s techniques for laughs and there was an awful lot of shouting. This transformed into a degree of pathos but there was a slightly too earnest effort to find the comedy. The cat (aka ‘a pussy with a cock’) was straight out of Avenue Q (a show I left at the interval I found it so utterly banal), and some of the humour was of the crude ham variety, which I generally associate with Shakespearean actors trying too hard to signal some hilarous Elizabethan knob gag to their comfortable middle-class audience.

However, there were some lovely cameos from (I presume) minor characters from the book. The editor’s secretary was my favourite, going from ‘turn the handle’ to ‘just push, no, pull’ to ‘there’s no door, just go in’ in one breath. The line was all the better for undermining the mime in the performance. I wonder if non-adaptations can generally ever achieve such richness in passing. Mind you, well into the run, many of the actors seemed to be having fun with extra little bits of business or playing with the substance of their part – the Variety Theatre’s co-proprieter having fun with his MCing, for example, or the sinister thin devil checking the wardrobe of the front row. I was in the front row and although there was indeed a frisson of horror at the possibility of being drawn into the performance, the audience ‘interaction’ ultimately went nowhere – this fact was acknowledged in the production, I thought, and not a problem particularly, but I would have liked it to go somewhat further or to a more interesting end than it did.

After the interval

It felt like a three-act structure with, as is common enough in this situation, the interval after the first two-thirds. In the last section, Margarita – a character I worried in the first half of the play was merely a muse, a motive-less cipher there but to urge, direct, infuriate, frustrate the male protagonist (her ‘Master’ of the title) – came to the fore. She was naked for most of this section, and when not, wore nothing but a thin robe or an air of studied indifference to her nudity. It always worries me a little in the theatre when female performers are required to disrobe for male directors. I’m sure the source novel has her naked as well, but there is a difference in having a character in a book wear nothing for an hour, and having an actor on stage do it. Now, there were moments of male nudity in the first two-thirds of the play, but these were fleeting in comparison to Margarita’s prolonged nakedness and seemed – to some extent – to be there in order to provide a licence for the female nudity that was to follow (‘See – the men took their pants off too’). Theirs was decidedly non-sexual nakedness, however, whereas Margarita is participating in an orgiastic Satanic ball. Worse is that she pretty much spends the entire time doing as she is told by other characters. She seems to have no dilemma in this scene, there is no time spent making the decision to participate. Still, she exists only to inspire or fulfil the Master’s needs, incriminate him and berate him for not believing in himself. And after it all, of course, she asks his forgiveness for leaving him that night – it was all her fault.

There was a lot of moralising at the end of the play and it was incredibly cheesy. There is an appeal to the authority of the author to permit the ending (“What next?!” they cry), and the rather cosy forgiveness of all concerned. Oh, and the chairs are used to make a horse. And there’s a rather odd explosion to deconstruct the building that was the backdrop to the action (having already cracked to allow compassion into the story), though the building hadn’t featured that strongly in my perception of the play. These elements may have been present in the book, may even have worked in it, but they seemed just too deus (ex machina) for the play.

So all this sounds like I did not enjoy myself. That is a misrepresentation – there were definitely things I liked about it and I think I would (have) like(d) to read the book to experience the chaotic atmosphere that Bulgakov clearly creates in it. The central theme of the author being Jesus being the devil was interesting (ish), even though the dualling of roles to enable the revelations of co-identity on stage was telegraphed from a mile away – from the very first scene, I’d say. But it worked well enough for the most part. If I pick up on what were weakness for me, it is because those are the more interesting things to talk about and they are what really make me want to make theatre again. I was deeply envious of the way the production staged an event of ‘black magic’ with a promised ‘revelation’ – it made me think of how I tried to something almost similar a few years ago in a play called The Prometheus Experiment. There were also moments where they really made the most of the immediacy of theatre. And I was intrigued when a character that I really hadn’t liked (either as a character or as a seemingly narrative device) transformed (without changing) into a properly dislikable character with a perfectly sound reason for doing what he had done up to that point, at which time I revised my dislike of the narrative device of the beginning without revising my dislike of the character. Intentional or not, I was impressed by that.

My lasting impression is of the first third of the play – it captured a choatic surreality that seemed suited to the content and the company performing it. The end presented several problems and I wasn’t convinced with how the production handled them. It suggests the adaptation was of a flawed source, which I have tried in my time, and the danger is that you commit the same flaws as the original in being faithful to it, or in assuming there is something profound in the flaws that will come out if you just accept them, or perhaps those flaws are in the original because there is no way to resolve the problems properly.