Kentish Town’s Complicite master fearless theatre all over the world

Simon McBurney, founder of the Kentish Town theatre company talks about their new work: an adaptation of Bulgakov’s The Master and Margherita

When Simon McBurney enters the caf� where I am about to interview him, the waitress gives him a loaded look. His posture (head down), his casual clothes and his almost nervous demeanour seem to arouse suspicion in the woman. She follows him to a seat which he chooses as if to question why he is there. The place is quite upmarket you see and woebetide her that she may let a possible vagrant grab a seat for a while.

McBurney is not a vagrant. He’s actually an actor (most recently appearing in the screen adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and TV comedy Rev) and the founder of Kentish Town-based theatre company Complicite – formed in 1983.

To say that Complicite is exciting is an understatement but no amount of journalistic hyperbole will do the company’s work justice. McBurney and producer Judith Dimant, who also joins us, have nurtured a reputation for fearless theatre, inspired by the most unlikely sources, driven by hard work and supported by sporadic financial resources.

Their next production, an adaptation of Bulgakov’s The Master And Margarita is coming to the Barbican in March. McBurney, who has been selected as associate artist for the Avignon Festival this year, chose to adapt the book when he was reminded of it by another of his projects – an opera based on the Bulgakov novella The Heart Of A Dog in 2010. “There is always a drama in his writing which makes you think about theatre. The dialogues are extraordinary, the plotting is dramatic, hilarious and suspenseful,” he says. “There is an enormous outside venue – Le Palais des Papes – in Avignon and I was meditating on what would be appropriate to play in that space. I was also meditating on, here’s a really pompous phrase, the state of the world – things which seem to be most urgent and necessary in our lives – and thinking about what might actually speak to us now in this moment of (a loaded pause) uncertainty.”

At this point, another, seemingly senior, representative of the restaurant comes over. “Are they looking after you?” she enquires enthusiastically. Dimant assures her of our comfort as McBurney continues. “It’s an inverted Faust story, in that the devil in this story is one of the good guys. The society he lands up in are so far from the idea of mercy and compassion and forgiveness that it takes the devil to teach them about it.”

McBurney’s explanation of the story seems to strike a chord with me. I haven’t read the book but I know it has many characters and many scenes and must have been logistically complicated to develop as a piece of theatre. “It’s a f***g nightmare,” says McBurney as Dimant nods. He takes off his hat – “I’ve lost all my hair. It’s very, very difficult. It not only involves dozens of different people but it involves different timescales stretching over 2,000 years, it involves questions about how you make a piece of theatre and it’s not yet finished.”

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I can’t imagine that they make it easy for themselves either. An excerpt from a lengthy resource pack for teachers created by the company reads: “The compositional process in theatre has parallels with all artistic endeavour. One of the things we can do is suggest thinking differently about it. For example, that there are things to be learned not only from writers, but also painters, sculptors, architects, musicians, composers and choreographers.” McBurney echoes this as he reels off a list of artists who he finds exciting. The list includes contemporary dancers Akram Khan and Hofesh Shecter, video artist Bill Viola and theatre companies Forced Entertainment and Quarantine.

“When we think of theatre, we tend to make a very hierarchical image of it – at the top people tend to place things like the National or the Royal Court or the RSC, all of which are fairly conventional organisations. Then there are other sorts of people, who are all in the theatre. In that I would include people who are not thought of as theatrical practitioners. There’s all sorts of people working today who are not necessarily recognised. I think there’s something theatrical in the imagination of the Occupy movement.”

We are interrupted by a plate of lemon slices (on the house) as McBurney tells me about one recent collaboration – with ES Devlin, the celebrated costume and set designer who has worked with American superstars like Lady Gaga and Kanye West. Both of these people, McBurney informs me, have been to see Complicite shows. I can’t imagine Lady Gaga as one of a theatre crowd – she’s a piece of theatre herself, I say. “Exactly,” says McBurney.

For some reason, knowing what’s next for Complicite feels like a coup. “We are planning on making movies and we have about 160 theatre shows in a pile, one after another,” the pair collaboratively say. “We’ve got lots and lots of ideas and invitations,” says Dimant. “ The movie thing we are trying to do on our own terms. This is going to be the year.”

The Master And Margarita is at the Barbican March 15 to April 7.