Dmitry Krymov Laboratory, Opus No. 7
The 2017 Perth International Art Festival highlight to date is Russian director Dmitry Krymov’s Opus No. 7. Consisting of two discrete works separated by an interval, the work is a meditation on the fraught career of compromised Soviet composer Dimitri Shostakovich. A recording of Shostakovich’s enthusiastic address to the Congress of Soviet Composers is counterpoised with images such as a giant babushka puppet—at once standing in for Stalin, Mother Russia and Shostakovich’s mother—taking pot-shots at a diminutive incarnation of the composer, who flees across a circus-style stage while large-scale photographs of his condemned compatriots (like theatre maker Vsevolod Meyerhold) waltz about him.
Shostakovich’s biography has received many renderings (notably the superb film Testimony, 1988) and Krymov’s poetic images here are not especially dense. As in agitprop, they communicate in a single gesture (Shostakovich is pierced through the body with the pin of a massive Order of Lenin) and gather little over time. Even so, the sight and sound of rusted metal pianos on wheels careening into each other like incensed battle-tanks in an even more literal incarnation of Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony (1941), a memorial response to the Siege of Leningrad, gives much to muse on, even where the images are not always complex.
This is not true of Act 1 however, which is a semi-continuous series of mnemonic acts in homage to the dispersed Yiddish Ashkenazi and Sephardic populations of the Russian Empire, mostly from Ukraine. In the Australian context, Act 1 is almost a companion piece to Barrie Kosky’s Gilgul Theatre productions like The Wilderness Room (1994). As in the latter, a blend of melancholy and magical summoning arises from the manipulation of simple objects such as cardboard (a rear wall through which arms, objects and cast members protrude, depart, and out of which rough shapes are carved with knives), old photographs (laid out in a corridor across the front of the performance space), shambolic but skilled musical motifs (tuba, song and the percussing of the stage wall), tins of black paint, staple-guns, a blizzard of torn newspapers (the cast pick through them and read the Jewish names they find on each), a rickety pram violently rolled across the floor (an ironic reference to Battleship Potemkin, 1925), and the now inescapable symbol of pogroms old and new: abandoned shoes, such as those that piled high at Auschwitz.
Opus No. 7 is unashamedly a work in the tradition of the Theatre of Attractions, a model enunciated by Meyerhold, Eisenstein and Tretyakov in the heady days immediately after the Revolution as a theatrical style for the masses. Akin to Dada, the mode is one of opportunistic juxtaposition and montage of what in the 1920s were mass entertainments: popular music theatre, boxing, cabaret, acrobatic skits, cinematic interludes and periodic surprises. A particularly affective such moment in Opus No. 7 occurs when the set's rear panels become screens for the projection of photographs of wizened men in long black coats and fur hats. As at the first screening of a moving image by the Lumière Brothers in 1895, what we initially mistake for a still slowly comes to life as images stutter into mobility. A voice-over commences: thickly accented men talk about their woes, about who is left and who has gone.
Using scraps, the performers gesture towards these lost presences, but the fragmentary nature of Krymov’s mise-en-scène prevents their restoration. Mikhail Umanets, perhaps the star of an otherwise ensemble performance, comes forward to tell us about the relatives shown in the photographs on the floor. His impressionistic biographies offer a taste of their personalities, a sense of idiosyncratic behaviours, but only in pieces.
Indeed, when a sense of presence does flood the stage, it somehow seems too much to be borne. Memory here is not only an obligation, but a pain itself: memory is cruel. Umanets takes a girl’s pair of red shoes and animates their delicate steps. Performers paint silhouettes of dead children on the wall, beside which Umanets stands, hopelessly and absentmindedly dropping his hand to grasp that of the painted figure. In a moment beautiful and horrible, a painted arm literally peels off the wall and reaches into his fingers. Neither the children nor the old men will come back. We are left with a performative scar.
Significantly, the lone woman who greets the audience in the opening, amusedly sweeping the floor (and its past) clean, later unbuttons her comically massive coat to reveal her pregnancy, before singing exquisite—but also tragically isolated—notes. If hope exists, it lies with these Sarahs upon whom the Jewish line depends. While Act 2 concludes with Mother Russia literally smothering her offspring, it is these mothers-yet-to-be of Act 1 who, simply by being among the cast, suggest rebirth. By scenographically reinventing a central aesthetic dream of the Revolution—the Theatre of Attractions—Dmitry Krymov stages an unbearable history of violence, repurposing an otherwise tarnished toolkit with which to attend to this same history.
photo Natalia Cheban