One certainty about Dmitry Krymov’s work, whether it’s based on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream or devised from scratch, is it will defy expectation.
An unusually warm Russian January has been swept aside by Siberian winds that have lowered Moscow’s daytime high to about -18°C. Outside, nobody is dawdling and somehow snow is falling out of a blue sky. But inside, behind the thick walls and quadruple glazing of Moscow’s esteemed School of Dramatic Art, it’s a balmy 20-something and director Dmitry Krymov is drilling rhythm into his students. Powerfully built, he sits with ankles crossed at a table in the middle of an airy rehearsal room, thumping out the beat at which dialogue is to be delivered.
This is the drama course to which students have flocked since it was set up in 2004 and from which Krymov has cast his productions since he started teaching and directing here. In that time, shows such as his take on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which arrives at the New Zealand Festival later this month, have propelled Dmitry Krymov Laboratory productions around the world and their director into the top tier of inventive and mind-expanding theatre-makers, alongside such artists as Britain’s Simon McBurney and Canada’s Robert Lepage.
Today, Krymov is working on something deeply traditional. It’s an old play written by the 19th-century Russian master of naturalism Alexander Ostrovsky. But during rehearsals it becomes clear that even with a piece chosen to not push the students too far out of their comfort zone this 1873 work is being given the Krymov treatment. The role of one character, a domineering father, is represented by a broken tape recorder. Banks of stage lighting will not only light the piece but also hover low and menacingly over the actors, like twitching mosquitoes.
So whether Krymov productions are based on Shakespeare classics or devised from scratch, such as his celebrated Opus No 7, which in the first half explores the death of Jewish culture under communism and in the second the persecution of composer Dmitri Shostakovich under Stalin, the one certainty about Krymov’s work is it will defy expectation.
“The invitation was that I can have artistic freedom,” says Krymov of his take on Shakespeare’s Dream. The invite he’s referring to came from Britain’s Royal Shakespeare Company, which wanted him to contribute to the country’s 2012 World Shakespeare Festival.
The students have left to take an exam. Alternating between careful English and a translator, Krymov explains his mercurial creative process, which involves a kind of free association of ideas and images much more than it does a script. It’s an approach that has produced possibly the most unconventional Dream ever staged. Even the show’s title hasn’t been left unscathed – with As You Like It added as a subtitle. So forget the story about a young couple absconding from Athens and a plot whose magic turns sexual disinterest into obsessive lust. Instead, think of the final act during which the am-dram troupe of Rude Mechanicals nervously stage the ancient myth of lovers Pyramus and Thisbe for their royal masters. Except instead of royals there are posh theatregoers who take their seats and flaunt their prejudices.
“I read the piece and was confused what to do with it,” says Krymov candidly about Shakespeare’s much-loved comedy. “I didn’t smile once. I knew about Peter Brook’s [famous 1970 RSC] production, so in a sense I was standing before a rock. [I decided] the thing to do was find some small chasm, rift, and slide into the play through this small hole.”
The result is a fantastical 90 minutes performed in Russian (with English surtitles) that, characteristically for Krymov, melds playfulness (there are acrobatics, Pyramus and Thisbe are huge puppets made of junk, and a jack russell terrier is included) with an underlying seriousness that elevates Shakespeare’s sideshow to having an importance it has never enjoyed before. But it would be a mistake to conclude from Krymov’s version of Dream that he sees the Pyramus and Thisbe love story as the play’s core. Something much more intuitive is at work.
“I came to the idea [of concentrating on the Rude Mechanicals] when I realised these people who don’t know how to do this production of Pyramus and Thisbe were somehow in the same position I found myself in. It was as if when I looked at them I was looking in the mirror.”
There is, however, nothing “rude” or “mechanical” about the softly spoken, thoughtful Krymov. He is steeped in theatre. Now 59, he can trace his award-winning approach back to his days as a set designer working with his father, Anatoly Efros, a renowned director. His mother, theatre critic and historian Natalia Krymov, was as well known as Efros. He took his mother’s name because his parents feared his father’s Jewish surname would hamper their son’s career.
That background comes through in plays such as Opus No 7, which pays homage to millions – in the form of East Europe’s lost Jewish culture and community – and also to one man, in the form of Shostakovich. There is an anger about the injustice behind that piece. “I have a lot of anger,” admits Krymov. He’s a big man and it’s probably as well he expresses anger through art. Even his Dream is partly a result of that anger. So what makes him angry?
“First of all, I am angry with traditionalism and formalism in our theatre. What’s even more outrageous is that people seem to need it,” he says. Unadventurous opera buffs come in for particular criticism – “They put on fancy dress to come to the theatre with a glass of champagne. They don’t want any revelations. That’s what I hate” – as do the cognoscenti of the art world.
“Such people go to contemporary art exhibitions and spin around because they want quiet,” he says. “Peace and quiet, that’s all they want,” he adds with measured derision. “They don’t even know that the Earth spins around the Sun.”
Krymov would have encountered the latter group in 1990 when he gave up theatre design for painting. It was a very fruitful 12 years during which he exhibited nationally and internationally. The art-viewers sound just like the champagne-swigging, arrogant fashionistas who take their seats in his version of Shakespeare’s Dream. It’s that background in design and art that explains why, unlike most of his contemporaries, Krymov thinks in images rather than narrative.
“I guess after my 16th production I’ve realised what my job is,” he says. “I think it is to create a narrative through images that are constantly evolving. So in a way [a show] is the adventure of an image. But this adventure tells you a story. In that way it has narrative.”
It can, he admits, be a risky way to make theatre. Especially when you are working with the crown jewels of someone else’s culture. He reproduces his huge sigh of relief when the RSC first saw his production of Shakespeare’s comedy and the audience began to laugh “very openly”.
“I was very, very nervous,” he confesses, although he’s not a man to show fear. And to describe just how nervous he was, he compares the opening night to the unveiling of one of his paintings. It was a portrait of Pope John Paul II. And he unveiled it to him in the Vatican in a private audience. The cardinals present had wanted to check the painting before the Pope saw it. Krymov refused. It reminded him too much of how the Communists used to censor art.
“When I showed him the portrait, there was silence,” says Krymov. “My thought was, ‘They will kick me out.’ And then after the silence the Pope said to the cardinals in Latin – it was translated to me later – ‘Don’t be afraid. It’s me.’ It was like the British audience and our performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It was as if they said, ‘Don’t be afraid. It’s our Shakespeare.’”
by John Nathan, New Zeland Listener, 13.02.2014