The Dmitry Krymov Lab has built a reputation around innovative theatre with a design-led focus, and Opus No 7 fits firmly within this vein. Split into two acts which are themselves distinct and contained dramatic pieces, Opus No 7 is a potent meditation on fear, loss, and control in the Twentieth Century.
The first of the two Acts, titled Genealogy, is a sparse, post-theatrical exploration of Jewish loss and genocide. An audience much smaller than that typically entertained at The Barbican are installed at the back of the stage on temporarily erected seating, and the main auditorium is cordoned off. The stage is empty, and the back wall is constructed of sheets of cardboard and other reclaimed material. A sweeper walks the stage with a vast broom which once raised up becomes an aerial, attracting snatches of Matthew 1:2.
Snatches of bleak physical comedy call to mind the stranger work of Jean-Pierre Jeunet, as raggedly dressed limbs punch through walls and singers and tubas emerge onto the stage. Though there are touches of comedy and light-heartedness the mood is sombre, and fear broods heavily over cast and audience both. Splashes of black paint become the haunted figures of the Jewish dead, coats take life, and relics appear, leading to hopeless, endless attempts to match the paltry remnants of genocide with the vibrant memories of once-live people.
Clipped footsteps on wood are the sound of fear and oppression throughout the evening; the polished shoes of the Commissariat and the Nazis alike. Through the two pieces sound is used to great effect, with the original score of the first Act sitting comfortably alongside the music of Shostakovich, which soundtracks the second.
After the brutalist brilliance of Genealogy, the second Act, titled Shostakovich, and telling a loose dialogue of the great composer’s engagement with Communist Russia, feels too oblique. The movements with the whole are intermittently spectacular, but certain scenes, such as a confusing physical escapade involving a chandelier executed in silence but for occasional grunts of effort, are little more than perplexing. Where Genealogy marries the art of design with the art of performance, Shostakovich is less successful.
Perhaps part of this is that the story of Shostakovich is neither as resonant nor as overwhelming as the history of the Jewish people. Arguably the preeminent Russian composer of the Communist era, he struggled throughout his life to match his insistent creativity with the world around him. Both applauded and subjugated, the life of Shostakovich embodied the terrifying capriciousness with which the Soviet state watched over its artists.
Mother Russia is depicted as a gigantic buxom puppet with frosty eyes who first smothers Shostakovich, then extends a vast snaking arm to deploy a medal which pinions and freezes the budding artist, before picking up a gun and murdering the nation’s artistic life. It is dramatic, and at its best exudes breathless physicality and a sharp menace – emanated wonderfully by the besuited agents of the Russia-puppet, but Shostakovich only grasps at the heights attained by Genealogy.