LIFT, the London International Festival of Theatre, is a wonderful institution – though the very word might make its founders – Rose de Wend Fenton and Lucy Neal – shudder. For wasn’t it a reaction to the very notion of `institution’ that fired Fenton and Neal to create LIFT as well as a passion to open London, as the legendary Peter Daubeny had done before them, to ideas and staging from around the world.
Over the years, LIFT has had a huge influence on generations of British theatre makers. I’ve no doubt that Opus 7 by Dmitry Krymov’s Laboratory from the Moscow School of Dramatic Art will leave a similarly lasting legacy.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea may still be to the forefront of many people’s minds but Krymov’s Opus 7 reminds us that there are other sides to the Russian psyche: huge imagination, ground-breaking, theatrical magic creating a three-dimensional experience and using everything from paint to paper to back projection and puppetry.
Krymov’s subject is persecution – of Soviet Jews, in the first half, and of the composer Shostakovich in the second. Neither, you would think, are exactly new subjects but Krymov, formerly a stage designer and artist, with his extraordinary group conjure a world of hallucinatory delicacy and haunting stage pictures that thrill as much as they move.
Giant size puppets, a dodgem race of metal pianos, cardboard cut-outs that shimmer into life are just some of the effects Krymov brings to bear in a double-tiered programme of pathos and unmistakeable censure of past Soviet policies.
On a traverse setting, a young woman wearing a sly smile and an enormous overcoat sweeps the floor. Later, this same woman, wearing the dress with which she swept the floor begins to sing the top line of a lament in a voice barely audible accompanied by other singers and musicans dressed in tails and evening clothes.
But the formality deceives. Krymov’s brilliance is in the physically and visually unexpected, one coup de theatre following another, one statement undercut by another. Subversion is his tool in trade. Singers becoming painters, throwing black paint at a wall which as we watch become outlines of human beings, then identifiable as old Jewish men, who themselves become live back projections. A guard appears from behind the wall. Ominous footsteps sound then a blast of air and smoke fill the auditorium. Thousands of bits of paper/ash fall to the ground and on our heads. Amongst the rubble, an actor picks out photos and the real lives behind the photos are retold. Later one of the group picks up a pair of tiny red shoes that have also tumbled into the auditorium and walks the shoes across the auditorium.
Heart-stopping in its symbolism, in the second half Krymov shows he can do monumental as much as tiny and particular. Mother Russia wafts into the auditorium as a giant puppet with scarf, voluminous skirts, painted fingernails and beguiling eye-lashes. Shostakovich – the same young woman as in the floor-sweeping prelude – nestles in Mother Russia’s ample bosom but the contortions through which Stalin put the composer are almost entirely physically embodied: through clambering, scaling, falling and being entombed inside a half splintered piano; from being embroiled and hanging from a chandelier with a smart-suited other; and being shot at alongside other Soviet artists by Mother Russia herself.
As Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony, the `Leningrad’, rises to a crescendo, the troupe emerge from behind red velveteen curtains and wage `war’ with seven clanking iron pianos. Shostakovich is returned to Mother Russia’s arms, the puppeteers emerge from under her skirts, she falls to the ground, cradling – or smothering – Shostakovich under her.
We leave, overwhelmed. Next week, more Russians, from Belarus (the Young Vic).
What more will they tell us?