Thursday, 23 February 2017

Opus 7 review - Remembering changes the way we see

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. Russian director Dmitry Krymov put the emphasis on the visual in his stunning two-act work Opus 7 which remembered the creativity and lives obliterated by the Nazi and Soviet regimes. The first work Genealogy traced the lives of Jewish Russians while the sister piece Shostakovich put 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 heightened 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 used buckets of flung black paint, staplers and string to transform the white cardboard backdrop into silhouettes. Or were they tombstones?

The set was constructed with playful lateral creativity. Discarded coats came alive with arms inserted, x-rays became missing appendages, the rhythm of names turned into a blues scat.
And then suddenly a multi-sensory overwhelm as bright light, smoke and a paper cannon exploded into the audience. Each piece of newspaper clipping represented one of the dead and they floated around the actors and audience like a snowstorm. Shortly afterwards air raid sirens and machine gun noise shook the floor and chairs as video projections of Russian figures vanished.

Paperstorm during Opus 7. Photos Natalia Cheban

Words were disjointed and used sparingly (mostly to name the dead – aunts, uncles, neighbours) but visual metaphors were everywhere. Glasses were 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 created 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 were woven with snippets of Shostakovich’s music.

The second act was largely an independent work with some reappearing motivs: Dmitry Shostakovich wore glasses and was given child-like dimensions, portrayed by the diminutive actress Anna Sinyakina with fragility and resilience. The number 7 linked the two acts - not just Shostakovich’s Symphony No 7 but also the seven actors and seven pianos.

Shostakovich was depicted as trapped in an abusive relationship with Mother Russia, a grotesquely huge puppet. Shostakovich clung to her bosom, was forced to kiss her hand and ended the act smothered beneath her. He was initially encouraged to explore the piano-like structure being constructed centre stage (the black cardboard silhouettes of figures from Genealogy were the drop sheets underneath), while the music of his Piano Trio No 2 was heard in the background. But then he was rounded up with other artists (including theatre director Meyerhold, playwright  Babel and poet Mayakovsky) while Mother Russia took pot shots. Shostakovich ducked and ran and a dangerous dance unfolded as he scrambled up chandeliers and was 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 was also made obvious; Shostakovich’s house was 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 hung as a puppet.

The only words heard in the powerful sixty minutes were 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 7 continues at the Perth Festival until February 26th. The show is sold out.

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