Krymov's Opus No.7: Russia's 20th century drama on stage
Jonathan Bastable reviews Dmitry Krymov's play Opus No.7, currently touring the UK, for its UK debut at the Brighton Dome Corn Exchange
At the climax of Opus No.7, to the deafening accompaniment of Dmitry Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony, the cast under the direction of Dmitry Krymov wheels half a dozen rusty iron grand pianos on stage. They proceed to hurl these strange props into each other, smashing them violently together in some kind of surreal vision of the Battle of Kursk. It is a rather terrifying moment, especially for anyone in the front row: the only thing preventing these instruments of war from hurtling into the audience is the actors’ tight grip.
The show is in part a kind of allusive biography of Shostakovich and his troubled relationship with the Soviet state. In this strange piece of experimental theatre, pianos are chimerical objects: they can be anything. At various points the lidded triangular form of the piano is made to resemble a mountain peak that the composer must climb, a building site where he does his bit to forge a new society, a prison, a womb, a coffin. These transformations occur in a series of loosely connected tableaux that are like scenes from some troubling dream; or like imagined fragments of Shostakovich’s own memory.
The staging of Opus No.7 is full of symbols, including a huge one – a portly, 5-metre high puppet representing Mother Russia. She first embraces the nervous figure of Shostakovich, smothering him with her love; then she dons the blue-ribboned military cap of the NKVD – the Stalinist secret police – and takes potshots at him as he runs for his life.
This murderous giantess succeeds in killing numerous other great artistic figures, lifesize jigsaw pieces in a group portrait: the theatre director Vsevolod Meyerhold (tortured and executed in the Great Terror), the writer Isaak Babel (shot in prison); the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky (driven to suicide); the actor Solomon Mikhoels (murdered on Stalin’s orders). It all adds up to a graphic, nightmarish picture of the tragic fate of artists and intellectuals under Stalin, and it is powerfully stirring.
But more moving still is the first part of Opus No.7 – Genealogy – which deals with the persecution of Jews in Russia over the past century or more. In many ways this is a separate piece from the Shostakovich sequence, but the two are linked by the use of Jewish melodies from his Piano Trio No.2.
At the very beginning of Genealogy, half a dozen actors throw pots of black paint at the white wall that constitutes the entire set. The paint dribbles down in vaguely conical shapes, which the actors top with skullcaps and ringlets to compose human figures. Each one of these Rorschach-blot Jews is unique, but at the same time indistinguishable from one other.
Over the course of the show, through the use of photographs and film footage projected onto the wall, the accidental painted figures acquire faces and personalities. And stories too, as we hear real voices – found snatches of conversations – speaking in Russian about lost friends and relatives: "She had such a head for numbers, like a minister of finance – that's what they called her in the family...”
The wall itself, meanwhile, performs multiple roles – it becomes a hall of mirrors, a Greek chorus, and a gateway to the lost world of the shtetl. This is central to Krymov's method, his key theatrical innovation. The set is no mere backdrop, it is a character in its own right. The wall is also a secret cabinet that manufactures pitiful imagery: when it suddenly spews out a pile of little shoes, you know this is a reference to the disappeared children of the Holocaust...
At one point, the wall seems to explode, and the audience is suddenly engulfed in a blizzard consisting of scraps of Russian newspaper. Every shred tells a tiny part of someone's history – but it is impossible to piece together a complete sentence, let alone a coherent life. It's hard to think of a more fitting image for Russia's turbulent 20th century.