Opus No. 7: Directed, devised and performed by those trained predominantly in stage design.
1. Crackling radio over a tannoy. A woman in a black coat and fat suit pushes a massive broom. The radio noises spit in and out of focus as she moves the broom. But then she brandishes it high in the air and it’s not a broom it’s an aerial. As she positions the aerial, the radio signal clears and it’s the pope giving a blessing in Latin.
2. Others come on stage and stand at music stands. They have tinkle-making instruments, tiny cymbals and bells, and they sing chirruping noises with straight faces.
This is completely ridiculous. Sound and images, disconnected, nothing more.
3. A white wall of cardboard panels runs along the back of the stage. In the centre small sections are cut out and an arm appears, then another, then feet and a head and finally a long, rolled up carpet protrudes from the middle.
Why is this stuff happening apart from that it looks and sounds good?
4. The chirrups settle into a drone with a melismatic melody on top, like an Adhan or Byzantine chant but Jewish, and text on TV screens above the stage repeat the words that the singers are singing: Abraham begat Isaac (Genesis 25).
The singing is beautiful, it feels ancient. We’ve had the Pope, a post-New Testament creation, and now we’re getting some Old Testament text – Torah text, Jewish text.
5. The 6 or 7 performers pick up buckets of black paint and throw their contents at the white wall, each creating a big blob. They add detail around these big splashes and the audience is guessing what they’re painting, like in Art Attack. Black curls and a black hat turn the blobs into Hasidic Jews.
6. With flick knives they cut around these Jew figures. From behind, hissing jets of smoke blow thousands of squares of newsprint out in a flurry towards the audience.
This is so COOL! I’m smiling, lots of others in the audience are too. Some aren’t. Maybe it represents anti-Jewish propaganda under the late Tsars. Or each square is a victim of the Holocaust. The crudely-drawn figures are literally blown away by these blasts of paper. Should I feel bad for enjoying it?
7. Morning suits are hung on hooks in the white wall. A roster of names is repeated.
8. Gradually the performers sing the list more and more rhythmically and turn it into a doo-wop style song.
9. One of the suits sprouts an arm, then another arm and then a trumpet. Then all the suits, five in a row, sprout arms and join hands. The performers join hands too and form a circle with the suits. Random notes from the trumpet build into a song and dance routine.
Ideas, images, notes and movements keep forming slowly into some bigger set piece.
10. Imposing Russians with beards and hats are projected onto the cardboard panels along the white wall, appearing and disappearing in random places. Our necks are craning left and right to see where they will appear from next, like watching a tennis match.
11. All the projections appear at once and then they start to move.
12. Slowly, they break out of their frames. Gunshot sounds. The gunshots turn into the noise of bombs.
The projections zoom in closer and closer as the noise gets louder and louder: eyes, noses, ears. Black.
The extermination of Jews. The Holocaust. The meaning is easier to grasp. It’s so loud.
13. The empty paint buckets form makeshift goalposts. The performers play football.
14. An SS officer is projected onto the white wall. He walks along, visible as he passes some panels, obscured as he passes others. He turns to the audience and kicks a pram out towards us. A real pram appears from behind the screen.
Projections are interacting with reality. What goes on in 2d behind the white wall is pushed into real life in front of it.
15. Shoes cascade from a chute, collecting in a pile at the bottom.
Few icons are as potent at evoking emotion as a child’s shoe. There are loads of them here. Are these the shoes of lost Jewish children?
16. Pairs of glasses are poked through the white wall. Faces are painted crudely around them. They are given arms. They hold hands.
Children only hold hands when they’re scared.
17. Text on screen: “Sad at the beginning, joyful at the end”. Act 1 ends.
1. The white wall has gone. A huge hodge podge wooden structure, chunks of wood bolted together into a lopsided triangle, sits in the middle of the stage surrounded on all sides by audience.
2. Noiselessly a giant puppet ambles in, veering and toppling. She wears a drab smock, fur stole, black coat.
It’s like being in a ventriloquist’s nightmare: the puppet has grown to a gargantuan size, its creepiness magnified. The hand gestures and movements are absolutely believable, too. She appears to be controlling the puppeteers, rather than the other way round.
3. The puppet encourages a girl to climb on the wooden structure.
Is it a dinner table?
4. It wobbles and the girl bravely continues her clamber. More wooden shapes are brought on stage, Shostakovich’s music plays and suddenly it’s clear.
This is a grand piano.
5. As the clanking piano theme blasts louder, the girl, hidden inside the piano, stands and drenches herself in coloured paint.
She is Shostakovich, experimenting with creativity. She wears his round spectacles.
6. The music cuts out, the puppet claps.
The puppet is Mother Russia. It is getting easier to work these things out.
7. A recording of Shostakovich’s voice plays, a speech about art and communism. The performers dance around the stage with life size cut outs of Russian artists.
8. Mother Russia dons a soviet cap, wields a gun and the nurturing, encouraging promoter of Shostakovich’s creativity shoots them all dead. Except Shostakovich himself.
The symbolism isn’t vague anymore. It’s still cartoonish, larger than life, stylised. But it’s obvious.
9. Shostakovich receives a medal of honour, an enormous badge with a spike that impales him through the heart and comes out the other side. He becomes still and lifeless. Two Russian officials carry him around.
No freedom, his talent stifles him, condemns him.
10. Russian Guard 2 stands on a chair and hangs a chandelier, but gets tangled up in it. Russian Guard 1 kicks the chair away and Russia 2 flies into the air. Russia 1 dresses Shostakovich in a brown suit, sits him at a piano and surrounds him with walls.
Shostakovich is the puppet now, not Mother Russia.
11. The piano is on fire. Russia 2 still hangs from the ceiling like Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible, watching Shostakovich’s every move. Shostakovich offers him a drink. He gets tangled up in the ropes and ends up flying too.
12. The Leningrad symphony starts. A simple tune, with a rattling, tin soldier drum beat. All the performers are in pianos made of tin. They are battered and red and rusty like a tin soldier’s hat. They play dodgems, crashing these clattering piano carcasses into each other as the symphony builds and builds to its dissonant climax. The pianos depart, leaving one to spin around fast.
War is child’s play. Even if it kills over a million men as it did in Leningrad.
13. Shostakovich is back, but now he’s an actual puppet.
Again, hints and suggestions building into solid ideas. Unsubtle symbolism.
14. Mother Russia returns and sings about the Volga. Puppet Shostakovich clings to her hefty bosom, she cradles him and sings her creepy lullaby:
“My baby boy is in a grave”
They keel and die.