Dmitry Krymov specialises in a singular kind of visual theatre. When he thinks about his method — something he tries to avoid, preferring instead to rely on instinct — he talks about the importance of images and non-verbal communication. The language of theatre is difficult, he says. It’s like a science. Above all, he feels that most theatre, contemporary and historical, suffers from an excessive trust in the power of words.
“It’s a well-known fact that it’s best not to trust words,” he says. “At least in serious affairs — and art is one of them.”
It seems appropriate, then, that a conversation with this transformative Russian director involves a tangle with language and accents across time zones.
Krymov’s interview with this newspaper is taking place over the phone: him in Moscow, me in Sydney. We begin by talking about his upcoming performances at the Perth Festival before he excuses himself: “If you don’t mind, it’s easier for me to talk in Russian.”
And so he does, communicating with the help of an interpreter also called Dmitry. We go on to discuss at length the life and work of a man some regard as one of the most idiosyncratic voices in contemporary theatre.
But barriers remain. Krymov speaks with a poetic touch that makes his answers both illuminating and, well, elusive. There’s also a slight delay on the line, which adds another challenge. A phone call only gets us so far, so I follow up later with emailed questions.
“I hope that this situation of mine is something that’s rather mystical to my comprehension,” he says. “But I hope that some very smart person has come up with this plan for me.”
The son of Russian director Anatoly Efros and writer Natalia Krymova, Krymov came to directing late in life. He initially made his name in the 1970s as a set designer, sometimes for his father. In the late 80s he made an abrupt change, turning his back on theatre to become a painter. “I’ve always been interested in art. But it was always frightening because I didn’t really study it, and the things that you don’t know how to do always tend to attract you.”
Then came another shift. A decade or so after committing to art, Krymov began teaching design at the Russian Academy of Theatre Arts. From this point, his return to the stage was only a matter of time. He began fusing the skills of the artist with the artisan, and worked with his students to create a designer’s theatre where visual concerns take centre stage.
“I haven’t purposefully elevated the role of designer in theatre,” he says. “But I am a set designer myself, so maybe it happens naturally, organically.”
Looking back, he says he “completely forgot” the world of theatre during his years as a painter. Now it’s the reverse. “I didn’t miss theatre, I didn’t go to theatre. And now I don’t paint. Otherwise it would be like spending half of your day like a Christian and the other half like a Muslim.”
One of the main differences between painting a picture and directing a play, of course, is the presence of other people. Art is a solitary pursuit while theatre tends to be more collaborative.
Krymov has a different take. The director may well rely on his team, he says, but they should take ultimate ownership of their work just as an artist does with a canvas that had been created in an empty room.
“One feels less solitary in theatre, much less. But it’s an illusion. It’s the illusion that allows one to avoid taking on responsibility, which actually is on one person, the director.”
In 2008 Krymov created Opus No 7, the show that is coming to the Perth Festival this month. The production has toured widely over the years, though Krymov is characteristically evasive when asked how it has evolved over that time. “Parents are usually the last people to notice that their children change,” he says. “So as far as I think it hasn’t changed at all. For me it’s still this cute little show it was when it was a child.”
Snippets of one performance can be found on YouTube, and it’s clear Krymov has created a world of his own. It’s strange, genre-bending stuff: storms of shredded paper flying through the air, arms bursting through walls, giant puppets, ghosts, drawings, video projections turning into 3-D, grand pianos turning into dodgem cars, actors using staplers and paint while singing and dancing in a frenzy of activity through the space.
The first half of Opus No 7 focuses on the oppression of Soviet Jews. The second is a meditation on Dmitri Shostakovich, with a soundtrack that includes the composer’s Piano Trio No 2 and Symphony No 7.
Shostakovich had a famously complicated relationship with his homeland under Stalin, which means there’s plenty of theatrical material to mine. Krymov compares him to Chaplin’s Little Tramp, the way he “dusts off his clothes and carries on” after receiving a beating. He also thinks they looked similar in old age.
“First of all he’s a genius,” Krymov says of Shostakovich. “And that is a rare thing. Secondly, not only he was a genius but he also lived a rather long life for a genius. And the third thing is that he was a genius throughout his life. The fourth thing, he lived in a very peculiar time that put an imprint on him and his actions.
“So it was interesting to look into how a genius lives through his long life, not losing his gift, in this peculiar time, in these circumstances, and how he could continue his work.”
When Opus No 7 toured the US in 2013, Ben Brantley was full of praise in The New York Times for Krymov’s “suitably unforgettable work”. The following year, when Krymov took the show to Britain, Dominic Maxwell in The Times called it an “ingenious piece of physical theatre”.
In The Guardian, Lyn Gardner wrote about the “surreal sense that you have dropped into an alternate reality”. She continued: “There are times when Dmitry Krymov’s production, which draws parallels between the fate of European Jewry (and) that of artists living under the oppressive Soviet regime, seems less like theatre and more like alchemy.”
Maybe this is why Krymov struggles to articulate the nuances of his show. You really need to see it to understand.
The director makes a great show of distancing himself from any theoretical framework, insisting that his ideas come to him through other means.
“There is no great plan. I am relying on my intuition,” he says. “Actually, if I didn’t have to answer all these questions, I myself wouldn’t even think about these kinds of things because that would make it easier for me.
“I teach a course and I have to explain things to these students, so I sometimes have to put some things into words, but I don’t like doing it. I don’t like putting things into words.”
Opus No 7 is at ABC Perth Studios as part of the Perth Festival on February 21, 22, 24, 25 and 26.
Photo: A scene from Dmitry Krymov’s Opus No 7. Picture: Natalia Cheban