DMITRY KRYMOV’S OPUS NO. 7
The Russian designer/visual artist/director Dmitry Krymov’s Opus No. 7 was for me an altogether more challenging, provocative and unpredictable work of theatre. Staged in the vast and shifting spaces of the ABC Perth Studios, it involved puppetry and object-theatre, clowning, live and recorded music, dynamic scenography, onstage visual-art-making, video-projection, an ensemble of eight performers, and almost no dialogue, but occasional fragments of song or song-lyrics, muttered phrases or words (mostly names), and (in the second half) archival recordings of public speeches and broadcasts.
In fact the work is the collaborative creation of the Dmitry Krymov Laboratory at the Theatre School of Dramatic Art in Moscow, where Krymov currently teaches and makes work in a unique combination of practices. This gives his student-cast a palpable sense of collective authorship and an intriguing variety of skills as performers and performance-makers.
Krymov’s work obviously derives from the early Revolutionary Russian avant-garde traditions of constructivism, montage and what a theatre colleague who saw the show referred me to as the ‘theory of attractions’ as articulated and practised by Eisenstein (who before becoming a film director was a theatre director and student of Meyerhold, and in turn profoundly influenced Brecht). The term ‘attractions’ here evokes a circus-like sequence of ‘acts’ or sideshows which each have an independent impact on the spectators, who then make the narrative or thematic connections themselves, rather than having them spelled out by the writer or director.
The first half of Opus No.7, ‘Genealogy’, dealt with themes and images from Jewish history, and in particular the persecution of the Jews in Russia before and after the Second World War, as a kind of precursor and prototype for political and artistic persecution generally. Songs, music and burlesque-style ‘acts’ were punctuated by the surrealistic manipulation of set, props, costumes and bodies. The principle element of scenic construction (and deconstruction) was an artificial back wall through which holes were cut, limbs and figures emerged, a whirlwind of paper-scraps was at one point blasted out into the audience, items of clothing were hung and animated, and black-and-white footage and stills were hauntingly projected – this entire sequence of ‘attractions’ evoking an initially absurd but increasingly harrowing scenario of persecution.
This scenario became more specific in the second half of the show, ‘Shostakovich’, which transformed the space and auditorium into a vast open circus-ring, and featured a Chaplin-like central performance by Kristina Pivneva as a diminutive female clown-version of the composer, pitted against a giant puppet Mother Russia, an army of similarly gigantic and monstrous prop-pianos, and extensive (and occasionally deafening) use of recordings of Shostakovich’s music as well as some of his more notoriously compliant public speeches and broadcasts.
Much like the composer’s music (and life), the rhythms, pace, dynamics and tone of the performance and image-making in this second half became more demanding even as its content (Shostakovich’s artistic and personal ordeals and compromises with the Soviet regime) became more explicit. At times the staging felt relentless and even unyielding to the audience’s eyes, ears or capacity for patience; there were fewer ‘attractions’, and some longueurs. Nevertheless, in comparison with the Complicité production, I left with the sense of having had a much more authentic, sophisticated and profound ‘encounter’ –with the use of mixed-media in performance, with another cultural-historical tradition, and with what it means to be an artist and a human being in the world.
Image by Pavel Antonov