The Master and Margarita, Barbican, London Sweeney Todd, Adelphi, London Filumena, Almedia, London - Reviews - Theatre & Dance - The Independent

The Master and Margarita, Barbican, London
Sweeney Todd, Adelphi, London
Filumena, Almedia, London

Simon McBurney brings dazzling technology to his Bulgakov adaptation but little clarity. A Sondheim evergreen, meanwhile, is as fresh as ever

Demons do not exist any more than gods do, said Sigmund Freud. Ivan Bezdomny would beg to differ in Mikhail Bulgakov's great, darkly surreal and satirical novel The Master and Margarita – newly staged by Complicite's Simon McBurney (drawing on Edward Kemp's adaptation). Bezdomny has seen Satan sloping around Stalin's Moscow with a gang of fiends, including Behemoth – a black cat who stands as high as a man on his hind legs, and can talk.

It's a spring evening: shafts of fading light; the rumble of passing trams. Richard Katz's Bezdomny, a writer, is sitting on a park bench with his editor, Mikhail Berlioz (Clive Mendus). A Soviet apparatchik promoting atheism, Berlioz is reminding Ivan that the Christ story is a complete myth when a preposterously macabre stranger sidles up in a beret, dark glasses and leather gloves (some distant relative of Dr Strangelove, surely). There's a glint of iron teeth as this self-styled expert in black magic – aka Woland – insouciantly predicts that Berlioz will be decapitated, then starts relating how he himself attended Jesus's trial, hovering around Pontius Pilate.

Scurrying off to report Woland to the authorities, as a suspected madman or foreign spy, Berlioz slips under a tram – neck severed. Then Ivan, gibbering accusations, is slammed in a lunatic asylum, along with another condemned writer, The Master (a pale, feverish Paul Rhys). Woland and his cronies, meanwhile, commandeer Berlioz's flat, "disappear" anyone troublesome, gull the masses with magic, and invite the Master's ex-lover, Sinead Matthews's Margarita, to their Walpurgis Night ball.

McBurney's multimedia staging has fantastic moments, orchestrating amplified sound, physical theatre, live camerawork, and swirling projections. Margarita's hallucinatory flight, when she leaps like an avenging witch out of her apartment window, is breathtaking and technologically brilliant. With her body smeared with a burning, blue diabolical ointment and perhaps in her death throes, Matthews is seen writhing madly on the stage while, simultaneously, she's projected on a window ledge high above, plunging headlong from it, seemingly for ever, in blurred streaks of light.

At this early stage in the run, other scenes feel slightly slack, over-busy with less brilliant ideas, and puzzlingly diffuse rather than dramatically concentrated. McBurney's recent ENO staging of the Bulgakov/Raskatov opera A Dog's Heart was tighter, the diabolical dog scarier than Blind Summit's scraggy cat puppet here.

Still, it's inevitably going to be hard to nail exactly how the storyline of Pilate, Woland and Christ overlaps with Stalin's regime, Berlioz, Bezdomny, The Master, or the punitively censored Bulgakov himself. Playing safe necessitated tangential allegories. Bulgakov's novel is like a vast, labyrinthine dream. I get the feeling McBurney is still grappling with this leviathan, trying not to crush it. Work in progress.

Moving on swiftly to the demon barber of Fleet Street, Sondheim's dark musical Sweeney Todd, starring Michael Ball and Imelda Staunton, is set in a sooty inferno, scarred by blades of light. Iron stairs spiral down to the bowels of Mrs Lovett's pie shop, where an oven belches smoke and the gore-splattered corpses pile up. The serial killer stands on high, his cut-throat razor flashing silver, as he swears to avenge the injustices he has suffered.

Maybe director Jonathan Kent's spotlit tableaux border on the hammy in this transfer from Chichester. The 1930s costumes don't fit the Victorian references (Beadles and Botany Bay). And Sweeney's long-lost daughter (Lucy May Barker) seems a bland goody-goody. Essentially, though, Sondheim's score still thrills, evoking folk ballads with a jagged edginess. Ball is frighteningly morose, this typically chirpy performer transmogrified into a hulking psychopath, with a greasy forelock and ghoulishly pallid face. Though her singing voice isn't as storming as his, Staunton's Lovett is far from outshone, bustling around with terrific comic timing. She is also genuinely sweet on Sweeney, though a merciless profiteer.

In the 1940s Neapolitan comedy Filumena, by Eduardo De Filippo, Samantha Spiro is the titular heroine who pretends she's dying to trick Clive Wood's Domenico into finally marrying her. He first met her in a slum brothel, and, having become a rich man, set her up as his kept woman years ago.

Laughing triumphantly, she says that from now on he'll be playing by her rules. He furiously wriggles out through a legal loophole, reviling her as a whore. Then she reveals, to his amazement, that she has three grown sons, one his own flesh and blood. Since he can't work out which that is, he'll have to do the decent thing after all, remarry her and be a loving, even-handed father to each of them.

De Filippo was himself the illegitimate son of a promiscuous rover. Filumena's speech, defending the uncomfortable moral choices she has faced as an underdog, feels like a startling, radical shift towards feminist docudrama, and this playwright is famous for having written in the dialect of Naples. That is, alas, hardly reflected in Tanya Ronder's clunky translation, or Spiro and Wood's RP accents. Michael Attenborough's production is picturesque – unfolding in the courtyard of Wood's villa, complete with orange tree – but the humour often seems feebly meandering.

 

'The Master and Margarita' (0845 120 7511) to 7 Apr; 'Sweeney Todd' (0844 811 0053) to 22 Sep. 'Filumena' (020-7359 4404) to 13 May

Theatre choice

Moon on a Rainbow Shawl, Errol John's tragicomedy of shanty-renting neighbours in 1940s Trinidad, is beautifully acted at the NT Cottesloe, London (to 9 Jun). Also in London, Ben Chaplin is superb in Richard Nelson's Farewell to the Theatre, a biodrama about Edwardian actor-manager Harley Granville-Barker, at Hampstead Theatre (to 7 Apr).

Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence star in new film 'Serena'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Some might argue that a fleeting moment in the actor’s scintillating, silver-tongued company is worth every penny.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth stars as master magician Stanley Crawford in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

film
Arts and Entertainment
U2 have released Songs of Innocence in partnership with Apple

musicBand have offered new record for free on iTunes
Arts and Entertainment
Brad Pitt stars in David Ayer's World War II drama Fury

film
Arts and Entertainment
Top hat: Pharrell Williams

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum star as undercover cops in 22 Jump Street

film
Arts and Entertainment
David Bowie is back with fresh music after last year's hit album The Next Day

music
Arts and Entertainment
Keith Richards is publishing 'Gus and Me: The Story of My Granddad and My First Guitar', a children's book about his introduction to music

music
Arts and Entertainment
Calvin Harris has generated £4m in royalties from the music platform

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman stars as the Time Lord's companion Clara in Doctor Who

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Time and time again: the popular daytime quiz has been a fixture on Channel 4 since 1982

TV
Arts and Entertainment

To mark Tolstoy's 186th birthday

books
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams is reportedly competing with Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss for a major role in True Detective

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Sam Smith returned to the top spot with his album 'In The Lonely Hour'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Backshall is set to dance with Ola Jordan on Strictly Come Dancing. 'I have a friend who's a dancer and she said to me 'You want Ola because she's a fantastic dancer and she can make anyone look good' meaning 'even you'!' he said.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Sting and Paul Simon on stage together at Carnegie Hall in New York

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week