The Master and Margarita; Sweeney Todd; Mary Shelley – review

Barbican; Adelphi, London; West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds

Taking on Mikhail Bulgakov's extraordinary novel The Master and Margarita is not for the faint-hearted. But Simon McBurney, who in 2010 directed A Dog's Heart as an opera, is a Bulgakov fanatic and has met the challenge with his company, Complicite, fellow-adaptor Edward Kemp and visionary zeal. His The Master and Margarita is masterly.

Moscow is projected, like a black-and-white Google Earth, on to a screen at the back of the stage. We zoom in to Patriarch's Pond ("like Russell Square but with a pond in it") as if manning a low-flying aircraft. Written between 1928 and 1940, the novel addresses the atheistical materialism of Stalin's Moscow and was banned partly because Christ, the devil, Pontius Pilate and Judas featured as characters. It is McBurney's not altogether playful intention that Bulgakov's satire be aimed at 2012 London.

The devil visits Moscow as Woland, a professor of linguistics who has all the best tunes (at one point, "Sympathy for the Devil" pounds thrillingly into life as blood streams across the screen). Paul Rhys's performance is a knockout. He speaks with a prim, Germanic accent but as if his mouth were full of broken teeth. He moves with a pedantry of the body: eerily unbending. He looks like a blind man except that his stick is black and he knows all too well where he is going. He can be anywhere any time (at one point, he steps out of his century to chastise the audience about iPads and iPhones).

By contrast, Jesus/Yeshua (Cesar Sarachu) seems pitiful – a parcel of bones with supplicant hands (not unequivocally wonderful, as in the novel). And perhaps this production could be subtitled "A Cat's Heart". For the cat, Behemoth – part of the devil's retinue – is an uncanny puppet with eyes that belong to the red-light district and a tongue to match: "I'm going to shag everyone in the stalls."

At every turn the play is vertiginiously staged. And if there are moments when the narrative seems eaten alive by the visuals, it's hard to see how an alternative would work. McBurney has a magnificent eye for the big picture and a "show your workings" approach to theatre. He recognises The Master and Margarita as a book of revelations – and a reminder of what can happen when the written word is not privately owned. We are always aware that the Master's story mirrors Bulgakov's.

McBurney complicates (or perhaps simplifies) things by having the devil and the Master played by the same actor – good and evil not polarised, like Moscow tramlines, but intertwined.

Finally, Sinead Matthews deserves a bouquet for her heroic Margarita. She smears herself in the devil's anti-ageing cream and hosts his hellish party in blue-blooded nakedness. "Cowardice is the only sin," Bulgakov proposes – in which case, everyone in this phenomenal production should have free entry into heaven.

It's hard to know what to advise: go to Sweeney Todd on a full or an empty stomach. Either way, you may want to avoid pies, especially those sold in Fleet Street, once you have seen Jonathan Kent's dark, bilious, brilliant production of Stephen Sondheim's 1979 musical (inspired by a Victorian penny dreadful). It's horrifically enjoyable – not to be missed under any circumstances.

It's set in a dark, smoggy, feral London (designer Anthony Ward) with virtuoso lighting by Mark Henderson, who sends a persecuting white beam through the peasouper to pick on Sweeney Todd "the demon barber", while in a yellow haze his estranged daughter, Johanna, basks and innocent punters greedily tuck into human flesh.

What Michael Ball brings to Sweeney, aside from his tremendous voice, is a monumental, depressive stillness. He seems paralysed by his past. He comes to life only in the moments where he sends his clientele to their deaths with his silver knife. Sweeney's customers wear huge white bibs that become their shrouds. And he has acquired a chic – and all the more creepy for that – scarlet leather chair, from which victims are ejected to the bakehouse below. There's a scintillating reprise of "Johanna", which Sweeney sings with almost absent-minded softness while "polishing off" one body after another. It's hilarious in its macabre, over-the-top way. It is the tense, incongruous juxtapositions and unpredictability of Sondheim's score that make the evening so powerful.

Imelda Staunton's performance as Sweeney's accomplice, Mrs Lovett, comes close to genius. She is a villain yet keeps her character real: a shrew in a pinny. Her Mrs Lovett adores Sweeney but is frightened enough to humour him, miming his murderous tastes with a flirtatious cut-throat gesture of her own. She has a hyperactive gaiety, especially on the subject of bad pies and in the outstanding duet (it could have been written by a cannibalistic Cole Porter) in which each profession is assessed as pie material, from poet to fop to rear admiral "with or without his privates".

Lucy May Barker's unusual Johanna has an edgy voice while Luke Brady's gorgeous Anthony is, vocally, golden syrup. Judge Turpin is well played by John Bowe as a pompous self-flagellator, and Peter Polycarpou's Beadle Bamford has menacing impudence, tickling the ivories in the Todds' front room. I will wait to digest this sensational show – then I'm going back for a second helping.

A woman drowns without water – billowing skirts overcome her. It is a classic Shared Experience opening and the woman is Mary Wollstonecraft. Mary Shelley, Wollstonecraft's daughter and author of Frankenstein, had a life almost too eventful to be contained within a play. By the end of the evening there's a Shakespearean body count: Mary and Percy's baby daughter dies; Fanny, Mary's half-sister, commits suicide and so does Shelley's first wife, Harriet. It's plucky to cram all this in and at the same time try to establish the intellectual reach of Mary's father, William Godwin, the Enlightenment philosopher. But writer/adaptor Helen Edmundson is equal to it, as this engrossing, conversationally rich evening shows.

Polly Teale's supple direction moves effortlessly between symbolism and naturalism. Ben Lamb does sterling work as Shelley, though he is perhaps a little underpowered in his floral waistcoat. Kristin Atherton's Mary convinces us that life is a passionate experiment. And Shannon Tarbet as her stepsister Jane has hilarious seductive energy. The evening will inspire much reading – and not only of Frankenstein. But what I enjoyed most was the evocation of a dysfunctional literary family. William Chubb is a mix of idealism and censoriousness as Godwin, and Sadie Shimmin's second Mrs Godwin is perfectly understood: a woman ill-adjusted, even when in charge of the teapot, to being mother.


Kate Kellaway

The GuardianTramp

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