Complicite’s “Master and Margarita” at the Festival d’Avignon

Photo by Christophe-Raynaud de Lage

How does an artist age?  We place so much value on the new, on the next bright young thing.  So what does a director or a company who were once that do when they become the establishment?

Simon McBurney’s Complicite is an institution. Their work can be elegant, effortless devised theater; muscular, inventive, the best of that continental Lecoq style. And McBurney is the artistic director of this year’s Avingon. There are exhibitions, videos and installations devoted to his past work all across the town.  He is undeniably the establishment now, and there is nothing wrong with that.  His last piece, A Disappearing Number, was breathtaking.  But in his latest piece–an adaptation of Bulgakov’s novel, The Master and Margarita–there is a straining after the contemporary, a kind of desperate clutching at the new which leaves no space, imaginative or emotional, for the audience.

Bulgakov’s book is vast.  The story stretches from Soviet Russia to the Jerusalem of Christ, from the cell of a mental institution to the Devil’s own ballroom.  For Avignon, McBurney staged it in the courtyard of the Papal Palace, a site steeped in history both religious and theatrical. It’s an epic setting for an epic story, and watching Jesus in the court of Pilate or dying on the cross, against the backdrop of the 13th century gothic architecture should be rich in co- incidence. But the design of the piece does not seek out intersections between the site and the material, and for huge sections of the play the palace serves as a projection screen for video-trickery.

Director Simon McBurney. Photo by Christophe-Raynaud de Lage

In the moments when the design does try to use the architecture of the space there is an ostentatiousness to it that is overwhelming. The clearest moment of this is the rending of the temple wall in the Jesus-Pilate subplot.  The design uses augmented reality to simulate the splitting and crumbling of the real palace wall. Watching it I knew I was supposed to be impressed, and because I knew that there was nothing left for me to do but try and figure out the trick. The technology looked like something out of a video game, a surfeit of flash and explosion to cover up the lack of soul.  And while the simulated wall fell, the real wall was still standing. The two were not in conversation, but very literally cancelled each other out, each rendering the other meaningless.

At another moment the wasted body of the actor playing Christ was intertwined with long pieces of wood–an unusual and beautiful image of the crucifiction.  Held for a moment against the towering wall behind, with the wind buffeting spectators and actors alike, it was stunningly beautiful. But then the projections kicked in again, a sequece of images from art history projected over the body of the actor, rapid cuts from one to the next. All those images were already there in the body onstage, and showing them to me dictated exactly what I should think at that moment, how I should be interacting with the image. The tech here took away any need for me to actively engage–it filled in all the gaps that might have given me some agency within the piece.

And it wasn’t just the technology that felt so full of effort.  There were beautiful and moving moments in the physical work from the actors, but surprisingly for a Complicite piece there were also moments when it felt like bad devised theater.  The actress playing Margarita spent most of the play shouting, even though she was miked, and for many of her scenes she repeated ‘my love, my love’, as if in a improvisation where she couldn’t think of anything else to say.  And as part of the Devil’s entourage there was a puppet cat, a foul-mouthed cockney whose scatology played for laughs with the atmosphere of humor, but without any actual wit. It was the kind of broad brush stroked class stereotype that has absolutely nothing to say but forces you to listen anyway, and makes you understand why the people who hate theater, hate theater.

Bulgakov’s novel is a beautiful sprawling homage to the need for shadows, for the illogical and the mysterious, written in a time when logic and efficiency were raised up as the bricks with which to build a brave new world. McBurney creates his adaptation from the kind of technical wizardry that is all trick and no mystery.  The most moving thing in the play was the wind that picked up as the night wore on, that blew props astray, that forced the actors to engage with something real and out of control. Neither in the acting nor the scenography was there any space left for imagination, for an active engagement on the part of the viewer.  The piece might talk about the need for shadows, but it leaves no room for them.

There is a kind of fascism in art like this which gives no agency to the viewer and leaves no space for interpretation.  It’s a dictatorship of image and imagination. Unwittingly, McBurney has created a piece that in its form does the thing its content is fighting against.

Edward Said wrote a beautiful book called Late Style about those artists whose work grows more difficult and uncompromising with age.  There are those who age difficultly, and those who mellow and age with grace.  This piece did neither, but pushed and strained for youth and, in its effort, undid itself.

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