Dmitry Krymov, who began his career as a set designer and enjoyed success as a painter, is today one of Russia’s most influential theatre directors. He tells stories through transformations of objects and sets, and creates mesmerising images with deep resonances. This year LIFT has brought Krymov’s 'Opus No.7', a two-part meditation on twentieth century Russia, to the Barbican.
The first act, 'Genealogy', examines the history of oppression of Jews from early twentieth century pogroms to World War Two. The audience is seated on wooden chairs of various heights facing a long wall consisting of multiple panels. Actors splash black paint on the panels, staple on skullcaps and sidelocks, and Jewish men emerge. Thousands of small pieces of newspaper are blown out from cuts in the wall and cover the stage and audience. Black and white projected images of Jews blot the wall like phantoms.
A menacing Nazi guard paces from panel to panel and kicks out a pram filled with children’s shoes. A dozen pairs of glasses poke out of the wall. The actors compose images of children by painting around the glasses and arranging the shoes beneath. An actor then walks a pair of red shoes by its laces and a ghostly child rejoins its peers. It is as if the wall itself is telling stories about people who have disappeared, evoking emotions of nostalgia, lament and rage.
The evening’s second part, 'Shostakovich', depicts the life of the Russian composer and pianist Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-75), alternately endorsed and threatened by the Soviet authorities under Stalin. One can hear influences of Jewish folk music in Shostakovich’s works. Throughout the act we hear repeatedly his variant of Jewish klezmer, 'Piano Trio No. 2', composed in 1944 when the Holocaust was at its brutal peak and anti-Semitism was rising in Eastern Europe. The music is punctured with a Shostakovich speech praising the State.
The act begins with the appearance of a puppet of towering stature with the young Shostakovich portrayed by an actress. With five actor-puppeteers underneath her skirt and moving her by rods attached to her hands, Mother Russia swishes around the stage, nurturing and menacing her child with domineering gestures. Later the actress is replaced by a small puppet representing Shostakovich’s dwindling status under the regime. The other antagonists are grand pianos built from various materials that get smashed, flipped over and burnt. Several metal pianos swivel in and crash into each other violently.
'Opus No.7' is densely packed with an array of images and potent symbols closely linked to the history of Russia. Brits might be unable to figure out the historical significance of certain elements but, as Krymov emphasises, the piece is open to various interpretations. Even if you cannot integrate the parts, the pain and frustration of the characters will touch your heart.