Review: Opus No 7

Dark topics covered in life-enhancing style


If you are looking for a tangible link between the two captivating halves of this Russian show devised and directed by Dmitry Krymov, it might be that Shostakovich was inspired to write his 13th symphony by the slaughter of thousands of Jews by Nazis in a ravine near Kiev. Not that you need such a link. The fact that Krymov deals with two subjects as dark as the Holocaust and Stalinist oppression with such life-enhancing inventiveness is enough.

The production has English subtitles on screens. But Krymov's language is visual. He was a theatre designer and an artist before he set up shop in the esteemed Moscow School of Dramatic Art. Here the Krymov Laboratory forges its work and proves itself a powerhouse of invention. This particular show needs an especially wide space to function. I saw it in Brighton at the Corn Exchange. Soon it will come to the Barbican as part of a UK tour.

The main prop in the first, Holocaust half is a white wall through which, as outlandish as it sounds, a lost Jewish culture is conjured. A hurricane blasts ticker-tape at the audience. It is suggested that each piece bears a Jewish name. Life-size images of the lost community - taken, I think, from Roman Vishniac's photographs of East European Jews - are projected on the wall and with startling invention and technical skill, they become moving versions of Jews whose unremarkable conversations we can remarkably hear.

There's a complete change of gear in the Shostakovich half but it's no less mind-expanding. One of its stars is a huge puppet of Mother Russia. The other is the composer who is gradually broken down into a quivering wreck by the persecution and torment he endured under Stalin (he fell in and out of favour).

It is allegorical stuff, but the message couldn't be clearer. In one moment, Shostakovich mesmerisingly played by Anna Sinyakina in this performance (she alternates with Maria Smolnikova) symbolically climbs the frame of a huge grand piano. In another, her Shostakovich runs in panic from shots fired by the massive babushka who has by now turned from matriarch into tyrant. The sequence climaxes when metal grand pianos joust, clattering into each other to the strains of Shostakovich's Leningrad Symphony.

The bravery of the show lies in its willingness to be playful with such dark themes. In the Holocaust section, even the death of children is suggested with a lightness of touch that, devastating though it is, leaves you grateful for the experience.

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