The most astonishing moment in Opus No 7 is not the part when the stage is invaded by a fleet of rusty metal grand pianos, clattering and crashing into each other like demented bumper cars. Nor is it the scene in which a virtual Nazi camp commander, projected onto a backdrop, kicks an old-fashioned pram – only for it to materialise onstage in glorious 3D, spilling out brightly coloured children's shoes.
No, the most electrifying section, the moment of metamorphosis that shows the power of Russian director and designer Dmitry Krymov, comes early on. We see actors smearing drawings of ringleted orthodox Jews onto cardboard flaps. A sudden hurricane then blows through the stage, filling the space with scraps of paper – but also sending the flaps nodding back and forth. Suddenly, these simple props have become praying Jews, and the space seems to have been transformed into Jerusalem's Wailing Wall.
"I like to summon theatre from out of the air," explains Krymov with a flourish. "We start with some small idea, prop, or action. And in front of your eyes, it gets transformed into something else entirely."
Opus No 7, as you have probably guessed, is crammed with the sort of stage alchemy that has become something of a trademark for Krymov. The piece, about to tour the UK, is a beguiling fusion of seemingly incompatible elements. The first half, Genealogy, is a visual cartography of the Holocaust, while the second is an imagistic, largely wordless biography of the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich.
It's rare, even in the top ranks of the world's directors, for a single individual to get the credit for forging an entirely new genre. But Krymov, a set designer and painter until he made his directorial debut at the relatively ripe age of 48, has managed it. This is "designers' theatre": conceived by designers, directed by designers, designed by designers (naturally enough), and sometimes even acted by designers.
It all began with a series of humble end-of-year productions mounted by Krymov's design students at the Russian Academy of Theatre Arts, Moscow's leading drama school. "We used design as an important tool," recalls his former student and current collaborator Maria Tregubova. Visual imagery, she explains, wasn't treated as peripheral, there only to help the weighty stuff along. "It was treated as a transmitter of meaning in its own right. It set the rules and often even played an independent dramatic role."
The works were – and still are – created through improvisation, using the rehearsal space as a giant canvas. "We started to tell stories by the means that were available to us," says Krymov. "We had not been trained how to speak or move on stage. But we came up with theatrical magic tricks. It turned out that it was possible to tell a story without a text using these tricks." The result is a newly-minted experimental form that voraciously appropriates anything from visual art, the web, popular culture and literature – and has an impact that is overwhelmingly non-verbal. As Krymov says: "The eyes are the quickest route to the soul."
This is evident not only in Opus No 7, but in earlier landmark works such as Demon, Seen from Above, made in 2006, in which actors perform like pond-skaters on the flat surface of a sunken stage, conjuring up a painterly vision of events from Russia's cultural history, including the death of Tolstoy and the launch of Sputnik 1. Donkiy Hot, in 2005, deconstructed the Cervantes classic and reassembled it as a headrush of gnarled shadow puppetry and dusty flamenco; and 2009's Death of a Giraffe brought fabulously garish colours to a eulogy marking the passing of a circus animal.
For years, these shows were best-kept secrets appreciated by cognoscenti on the fringes of Moscow's experimental scene, until the Krymov sensation broke through internationally. "A curious thing has happened," noted a critic. "As if from behind a blind corner, or up from the deep, a major new director has appeared among us."
In person, loping around the corridors of the company's pristine constructivist-inspired Moscow theatre in his combat trousers, with his mop of shoulder-length grey hair and bug-eyed glasses, Krymov comes across as gentle and professorial. The scion of Soviet theatre royalty – his father was the legendary director Anatoly Efros, his mother the influential critic Natalia Krymova – he was initially a sought-after set designer, then a successful neo-expressionist painter. He joined the Academy in 2002 as lecturer in design, which led to directing.
For all this, there is no hint of entitlement in his manner. "I don't speak much in life," he says. "And I don't believe in spoken words in the theatre. Words jump out of your mouth way too easily. But the image, the scene – that is something you have to create."
One place where Krymov does make noise is in the rehearsal room, where I watch him work. He whoops, giggles, dances and sings along, sometimes picking up actors and placing them on the desired spot. Through what appears to be at times little more than chaotic pandemonium, the ideas and imagery are gradually honed. "Chaos," he says, "has a magnet at its core."
At first glance, some of the resulting associations – such as the surprising decision to combine the Holocaust with Shostakovich in Opus No 7 – may seem purely random. Can he explain? "This connection is very indirect," he says, not entirely helpfully. "It's more on the level of emotion." But Krymov does not come across as some postmodern guru, hiding behind wilful obfuscation: each theme and idea is intended as a perfectly engineered droplet of exquisite visual meaning.
Take the giant, matronly Mother Russia figure who glides into the second half of Opus No 7. At first, she nurtures the skittish young Shostakovich like a son, hiding him in the ample hem of her skirts. But mum soon turns serial killer and, in a ballroom mass shooting that is highly balletic, attacks not only her child but also a host of other artists, including the poet Anna Akhmatova and the director Vsevolod Meyerhold – both victims of Soviet repression. "She is a Motherland who loves and kills at the same time," Krymov says. "She brings Shostakovich to his first concert. But she is also his prison guard."
Overall, the piece appears to draw a daring and somewhat thorny comparison between the annihilation of the Jews and the treatment of artists in the Soviet Union. "You could say that," says Krymov. "It was certainly part of my motivation." But he cautions against making any neatly manicured analysis of such a tumultuous, self-contradictory and playful work. "You have to watch and feel," he says. "You shouldn't overthink. It's not a crossword."
John O'Mahony, The Guardian, 05.05.2014