An act of resistance

d'Lëtzebuerger Land vom 16.12.2011

d’Lëtzebuerger Land: Complicite get great praise from everyone. For years academics and critics have been trying to find ways to define you, and it’s been impossible! I know you object to labels like ‘physical’ or ‘visual’ – those elements are certainly there in the shows, but there is so much more: there are the unexpected patterns, there is the poetry, there is the strong humane element.

Simon McBurney: People always ask me: ‘What is Complicite?’ A lot of the time I feel it’s like an act of resistance. We are constantly in a si-tuation where we have to accept a vision of the world as being the orthodox way of going about things. In all times, but in these times particularly, I think that resistance is very important. What do I mean by resistance? I mean trying to resist the idea that you have to do what you’re expected to do, that you have to keep quiet about things that you shouldn’t keep quiet about. You have to resist the idea of settling into a place of protection and so-called safety.

I think we live in a very strange moment. We’ve never been surrounded by so many images, so many created artificial visions of the world. Very often we can’t actually see anything at all! On one level, every time I make a piece of theatre, it’s an investigation into the next bit of whatever it is that I don’t understand. The attempt to communicate is also a positive act of resistance because you are putting it out there. And the strange paradox of the time we live in is that the Internet appears to allow many more opinions to be heard, but it is harder than ever to be listened to.

You get the feeling that nobody listens to anything. How can I describe making a piece of theatre? If you take The Master and Margarita, I felt appalled when looking at the first thing I made. It felt like a rather classical piece of theatre. And it’s only now that I’m beginning to see what it should be and can be.

I can see why The Master and Margarita appeals to you! Complicite shows never have a simple, linear plot; often there are stories from different periods of time. They are parallel but also very different. And Bulgakov gives you that right from the start. There are all these levels of narrative, these layers…

Theatre is, in my opinion, intimately involved with music and has been since its inception. The earliest form of music is the human voice, but part of the nature of humanity is to form sound into words. The earliest form of heightened communication is to immediately inter-mix two different things at once so that it becomes something strange. There is an interlacing of two things.

Actually, quite frequently critics in Britain object to what I do in one way or another. They complain about video or they call it physical or whatever pejorative term they wish to use. It’s because there’s not the fundamental admission that this multi-layering of everything is how life is.

Now, you might not want to layer everything in multiple forms. You strip it right away and there’s nothing there at all. The work of Peter Brook is a good example; it is phenomenal. He’s done the opposite, but I’m a child of the rock concert and of the digital revolution. I refuse to allow modern technology to be appropriated only by the status quo and by multinational corporations for profit.

Artists should not be governed by this technology, but use it and make it part of something. One of the beautiful things about using video is that theatre can become very light-footed. After all, video is only another form of light! And light is perhaps one of the earliest forms of theatre. If you look at very ancient forms of theatre, they all use sha-dows. The implication is that lighting a fire and telling stories began under the night sky. The light of the night made an appeal to the imagination; this is directly connective with the use of video or electronic light in the theatre today.

You once explained that you always start with a text of some sort: a play, a novel, a collection of ideas, a mathematical formula… What happens next?

I don’t know. I just have the feeling that most of the time I’m working in a kind of chaos. And the older I get, the more painful I often feel it becomes. I say this partly because right now I’m in the middle of a process and it’s very hard to describe. I always say it feels like having blank pieces of paper and something on top of them. You put something onto the first blank piece of paper. And because you put it there, the next thing becomes inevitable. And then you just turn the pages, and it’s already there. You simply have to follow it step by step by step by step, and it appears.

When you approach the novel, do you start with a concept like forgiveness or compassion? Or with individual characters?

No, I think it is just the novel itself. The Master and Margarita is a very great work of art. Let’s take the relationship between Pilate and Yeshua. Let’s examine what it is. Let’s take the dialogue and make a scene out of it. Let’s tell it, let’s tell it in pictures. Let’s turn it into light, let’s turn it into a dynamic. Little by little, once you’ve understood the story and told it in many different ways, what you have to begin to do is to make a work of art which is inspired by what is there.

You have the same actor play both Woland and the Master. Is that what you wanted to do from the start or did it come about?

It came about, and that’s why I wanted to do it. When Woland appears, he tells a story. And the story he tells is the story of Pontius Pilate. The words, the writing of it, the tone and the vocabulary is exactly that used by the Master. So he must know the Master’s story. Why is Woland coming to Moscow? Well, the first thing he does when he comes to Moscow is tell the Master’s story. Probably to the people who condemned it.

I think The Master and Margarita is partly about the imagination. Woland is the imagination. You could almost say he is part of the Master’s imagination. In that way it’s very closely linked to consciousness because in a strange way it’s like a nightmare or a dream. Of course, Bulgakov is writing in the 1930s, when all the mo-dernists are writing. And they’re all writing about consciousness: Joyce, Ezra Pound, Virginia Woolf, TS Eliot… They ask: What do things mean? What is the nature of meaning? And is what we see true?

Simon McBurney’s The Master and Margarita is showing at the Grand Théâtre tonight. It is the one show you should not miss!
Janine Goedert
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