'Opus No 7' review or 'Is there anything fiercer than forte?'

Opus No 7, Dmitry Krymov Lab
LIFT Festival, Barbican, 4 June 2014

Anyone who has listened to Shostakovich’s music will know there is a battle rumbling beneath everything he writes, a ferocious soul hammering away at the edges of every bar. It is music that only a Russian could have written. More specifically, it is music that only a Russian living under the Soviet regime – and all the biting conflict and compromise that must have entailed - could have written. Dmitry Krymov’s entrancing show, ‘Opus No 7’, explores the painful relationship between Shostakovich and his beloved Russia, using thundering music, stunning visuals, pulsing physical sequences, flashes of fire and just a little bit of magic.  

The show is split into two distinct halves – Genealogy and Shostakovich – which feed into each other in subtle and endlessly undulating ways. The first half focuses on the plight of the European Jews and, slowly and ingeniously, turns a predominantly empty space into a stage filled with ghosts, memories, shadows, fear and sorrow.

A bunch of huge white boards line up to form a grimy anonymous wall along the back of the stage. The actors – aided by Kyrmov’s precise yet playful direction – begin to  evoke the ell the story of the Jews and the Holocaust. The actors chuck buckets of black paint against the wall. They look like messy splodges - until a skull cap and two distinctive strands of hair are pinned on by the actors. With just a little imagination and artistry, the black splodge is turned into a person and something that was once anonymous and forgettable becomes human and real.

People and images pulse in and out of existence with breathtaking speed. There is a relentlessly fleeting nature to everything in the first half of ‘Opus’, which reminds us how easy it is to lose what once seemed to solid and true. Suits hang up against the walls and they look like ghosts but – with just the appearance of a hand poking through a sleeve – the suits become people. And with just the appearance of a hand and a trumpet, these empty suits become people who can provide music to all around them.

The context of Holocaust becomes painfully distinct as the first half deepens. The actors gather at the front of the wall and chat, casually, about everyday life. Suddenly the chatter stops and the projected figures behind the actors, which hover on the white boards, raise up their hands. The stage goes silent and then – suddenly - boom, boom, boom. Gun-fire clatters and projections of hundreds of faces – now lost for good – are hammered against the back wall.

Krymov creates a shifting, teasing relationship between the figures projected on the screens and the actors on-stage. It would be too easy to classify the actors as ‘real’ and those projections as memory but Krymov blurs these two spaces to head-spinning effect. After the rattle of gunfire comes the echoing stomp of an SS soldier’s feet. As the actors freeze in fear, the projected soldier kicks a pram that slams ‘through’ the screen and materialises, in 3D glory, on the stage. At another point, the shadow of a ball – the reminder of a young boy now dead – bounces on the screen and then right through onto the stage. Memories and reality, shadows and substantial figures, annihilation and perseverance all play together with fascinating fluidity and grace.

This gap between the living and the dead is exposed with painful clarity when a heap of tiny shoes are dumped onto the stage. We know that these shoes are not just shoes but shadows of people. One of the actors picks up a pair of red shoes and, holding onto the shoe-laces, makes the little shoes walk across the paint splattered stage. It is a horrendous and heart-breaking moment that resonates with such a cruel sense of loss. Eye glasses pop through the boards and, for a while, stay suspended against a white backdrop. The actors get out their paintbrushes and add bodies to these hovering empty faces. One of the actors lines up against the glasses that now have bodies and holds their hands. Look at how creation can resurrect! Look at how artists can make sense of the senseless.

The second half builds on the sense of loss and sorrow and conflict of the first half but focuses in on Russian composer Shostakovich (played by the artist/actress Anna Sinyakina) and his deeply uneasy relationship with the Soviet rulers. The sound track is made up of jagged extracts from Shostakovich’s Seventh (or Leningrad) symphony, which Shostakovich wrote during the occupation of Leningrad during World War II. It is a punching primal piece of music, cut through by the angry saw of the cello, which lends the piece such soul, passion and tenderness.

The stage is transformed into a traverse stage in the second half, with a huge red velvet curtain hanging down from one side. Much of the act, which sees Shostakovich try to compose his music amid a series of surreal sequences, is overlooked by a massive puppet of a Russian woman, controlled by actors. With breasts as big as a human body, this woman – who later wears an SS cap – glides coquettishly, with her hips wagging, across the stage. At one point, a puppet of Shostakovich clings to her chest. This is Mother Russia and she is one hell of a presence.

Krymov and his collection of artists (and I include the actors, multiple designers, movement directors, composers and special effects team in this description) explore the oppressive environment under which Shostakovich worked and the way in which this conflict affected and informed his work. A wooden impression of a piano is constructed on stage in front of our eyes; when it is finished, and Shostakovich bursts out, it looks very much like a coffin.

The imagination displayed here is quite extraordinary and one realises how limited we Brits are by our stubborn dependence on words. Very little is said in ‘Opus’ (the script is largely made up of recorded extracts of speeches made by Shostakovich throughout his career) but so many ideas and emotions swarm the stage. Under Krymov’s insatiable spirit, the stage becomes a space of infinite possibility. It is a space to be picked at and opened out in any way imaginable – rather than a confined environment in which to plonk some actors.

The show grows ever more expansive and expressive as Shostakovich’s conflicts intensify. At one point, he is awarded a medal of honour via a stab through the heart. In another fierce scene, a number of composers - all printed onto separate boards - line up against the stage and, in turn, are shot down by the huge Russian lady, who now dons the hat of a soldier. With each shot, the actor holding the board scampers across the stage, frightened but also dancing and liberated and beautiful. As Shostakovich tries to compose at home, the walls around him whirl and whirl and the piano erupts into flames. In one of the final scenes, a bunch of tin pianos are rolled out onto stage to perform a dancing battle. The pianos have got holes smashed into them and are smashed up beyond recognition. They are battered and ugly but – damn – can they make a lot of noise.


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