★★★★☆ Krymov's puppets tell a darkly visual tale of Shostakovich and his time.
ABC Studios, Perth
February 22, 2017
There is so much going on in this production – puppetry, music, painting, dancing, acting – I hardly know where to start. Perhaps with what was missing: there were hardly any words. Dmitry Krymov puts the emphasis on the visual in his stunning two-act work Opus No. 7 which remembers the creativity and lives obliterated by the Nazi and Soviet regimes. The first work, Genealogy, traces the lives of Jewish Russians while the sister piece, Shostakovich, puts the spotlight on the composer and his repression under Stalin.
Who needs words when there are images that can teach us how to see, to really perceive? Krymov and his team of designers from the Moscow School of Dramatic Art heighten our visual awareness by constructing the images in front of our very eyes, literally from a blank canvas. After an unhurried prologue – a lament for peace – seven black-suited actors use buckets of flung black paint, staplers and string to transform the white cardboard backdrop into silhouettes. Or were they tombstones? The set is constructed with playful lateral creativity. Discarded coats come alive with arms inserted, x-rays become missing appendages, the rhythm of names turn into a blues scat.
And then suddenly a multi-sensory overwhelm as bright light, smoke and a paper cannon explode into the audience. Each piece of newspaper clipping represents one of the dead and they float around the actors and audience like a snowstorm. Shortly afterwards air raid sirens and machine gun noise shake the floor and chairs as video projections of Russian figures vanish.
Words are disjointed and used sparingly (mostly to name the dead – aunts, uncles, neighbours) but visual metaphors are everywhere. Glasses are worn by many of the characters, helping them and us to ‘see’. And the piles of children’s shoes with the lone man holding the hand of a cardboard child? Perhaps a reference to Janusz Korczak, the Polish orphanage director remembered for volunteering to go to the gas chamber with his children.
The actors create their own soundtrack too, singing Russian plainchant with sparse beauty, offering bursts of coloratura, breaking into scatting and constructing songs from tuba or flugelhorn solos. Their contributions are interwoven with snippets of Shostakovich’s music.
The second act is largely an independent work with some reappearing motivs: Dmitri Shostakovich wears glasses and was given child-like dimensions, portrayed by the diminutive actress Anna Sinyakina with fragility and resilience. The number 7 links the two acts – not just Shostakovich’s Symphony No 7 but also the seven actors and seven pianos.
Shostakovich is depicted as trapped in an abusive relationship with Mother Russia, a grotesquely huge puppet. Shostakovich clings to her bosom, is forced to kiss her hand and ends the act smothered beneath her. He is initially encouraged to explore the piano-like structure being constructed centre stage (the black cardboard silhouettes of figures from Genealogy are the drop sheets underneath), while the music of his Piano Trio No 2 is heard in the background.
But then he is rounded up with other artists (including theatre director Meyerhold, playwright Babel and poet Mayakovsky) while Mother Russia takes pot shots. Shostakovich ducks and runs and a dangerous dance unfolds as he scrambles up chandeliers and is surrounded by metal grand pianos smashing together like bumper cars, all set to the music of Shostakovich’s own waltzes. The sense of dependency and entrapment was real.
The repression of the regime is also made obvious; Shostakovich’s house is built around him from cardboard with the chandelier held in place by a spy. The metal rod in a chilling game of limbo is a visual limit to Shostakovich’s growth and ultimately the stick from which he hangs as a puppet.
The only words heard in the powerful 60 minutes are the words of Shostakovich himself, translated via subtitles. And of course his music: the instantly recognisable jarring combination of swagger and fear, pathos and playfulness, completing the requiem.
Opus No. 7 is at Perth International Arts Festival until February 26
- See more at: http://www.limelightmagazine.com.au/live-reviews/review-opus-7-dmitry-krymov-laboratory-piaf#sthash.0aZ6MUPm.d