Complicité's extraordinary staging of Bulgakov's 'unadaptable' The Master and Margarita has returned to the Barbican, providing a welcome opportunity for those of us who missed it the first time to see what all the fuss is about.

The cast is slightly different this time round, most notably with Susan Lynch replacing Sinéad Matthews (who is in The Changeling at the Young Vic) as Margarita. But the fuss is still justified, and I staggered out after three and half hours feeling much as I expected to - utterly overwhelmed with ideas and imagery.

Simon McBurney has honed a technique of storytelling that embraces pretty much every theatrical style you care to mention, yet manages to feel anything but derivative. For example when Behemoth (a foul-mouthed feline created by puppet masters Blind Summit) breaks the fourth wall and offers to "shag" the entire front row the experience feels absurdly pantomimic, yet at the same time oddly in keeping with the tone.

As tortured writer The Master (Paul Rhys) wrestles to come to terms with his strange meeting with the prophetic 'Woland' (aka the Devil) in a leafy Moscow park, leading to his incarceration in a mental asylum and subsequently dragging his lover down to hell, his journey is related through a symphony of semiotics.

Notably, the marriage of video and live action (Google Earth-style maps set the scene, while several key moments are filmed from above and projected on the back wall) enables the production to match the epic nature of the narrative, culminating in a final image that feels appropriately apocalyptic.

Every inch of the Barbican's huge stage is utilised as light beams create rooms, phone booths become trams and chairs evoke horses. There were audible gasps around me at several of the coups de théâtre, particularly the incredible revelation of the Master's true identity - one of the many elements I'm still scratching my head about.

The ensemble is uniformly excellent, with Rhys and Lynch proving equally beguiling as the titular lovers and Tim McMullan successfully playing against type as Pontius Pilate. There is also strong support from Toby Sedgwick as the mischievous compere Koroiev Faggot and Cesar Sarachu as an agonized Christ.

The sheer cacophony of ideas on show is almost impossible to comprehend in a single sitting. Blink and you most probably have missed something. But there's not just method but magic in McBurney's madness, confirming The Master and Margarita as a must-see this Christmas.

- Theo Bosanquet


NOTE: The following FIVE STAR review dates from 22 March 2012, and this production's premiere at the Barbican

You dream the impossible dream watching Complicité’s stage version of Mikhail Bulgakov’s amazing phantasmagorical novel: director Simon McBurney achieves a remarkable consistency in the various strands and provides a rich feast of dark arts, movement, rhetoric and stunning visual imagery.

The novel, which took twelve years to write, in secret, and which remained unpublished until 1966 (Bulgakov died in 1940, having added his last revisions), is an exhilarating reading experience: it prospers as magic realism, a satire on Soviet tyranny and censorship, and as a wild, unlikely love story, precisely because it is unrestrained and completely absurd and gloriously surreal.

Pinning it down in the theatre should be as sensible a task as putting handcuffs on flowers. But McBurney and his company of sixteen actors play a masterstroke in making the satanic visitor to Stalin’s Moscow, Professor Woland, the tall and scary alter ego of the writer himself, the imprisoned Master.

This provides both narrative cohesion and a handy metaphor of a writer trapped in his own worst nightmare. Using the adaptation Edward Kemp provided for the late Steven Pimlott’s Chichester Festival Theatre production in 2004, McBurney - with designer Es Devlin and video artist Finn Ross - clarifies, rather than obscures, the story in a tumult of physical and cinematic detail.

The Master’s work, a philosophical recreation of Pontius Pilate’s treatment of Yeshua (Jesus) in Jerusalem, restricted to four ambiguous chapters in the novel, cuts across the action like a knife, Tim McMullan giving a wonderful portrait of sweating authority that expands into the wider political framework of the modern crackdown.

Then we see the writer Berlioz steam-rollered by a human tram in Patriarch’s Ponds (a square not unlike Russell Square, we are told) and his skull split in the form of a cabbage. Paul Rhys as a sinister Woland is unravelled as the imprisoned Master, and the society of bogus literati are transformed into a theatre audience for the music hall scam.

Retaining the formal balance of Bulgakov, but intensifying his theatricality, McBurney trumps the satirical tone of civic and artistic repression with the power of redemptive love: smoky-voiced Sinéad Matthews gives brave and utterly naked expression to Margarita’s flying intervention, swooping through fields of imagery at the satanic ball and the magically disintegrating city of Jerusalem/Moscow.

Woland’s retinue includes the talking cat, Behemoth, a human-scale black puppet moggy with fiery red eyes voiced by Tamzin Griffin and Amanda Hadingue, as well as Angus Wright’s ingratiating Koroviev and Ajay Naidu’s colourful yes-man Azazello.

It’s a mark of the production, in fact, how vivid and incisive the characterisations are within the ensemble, and there’s an eloquent crucifixion image of Yeshua Ha-Notsri (Cesar Sarachu) seemingly trapped in his own crown of thorns.

Complicité have been brilliant, but perhaps over-cerebral, of late: this visceral, heart-thumping show marks a return to top form as they approach a thirtieth anniversary and embark, in May, on a tour of European festivals leading to the great courtyard of the Popes’ Palace in Avignon in July.