Left photo – Rachael Barrett. Cover photo – Natalia Cheban.
The Dmitry Krymov Laboratory is no stranger to the Perth International Arts Festival. In 2014, they graced our shores with their Herald Angel Award-winning A Midsummer Night’s Dream (As You Like It), and captured the hearts of critics all over our fair city. In 2016, they return with the darker Opus No. 7, a powerful cacophony of puppetry, sound, and gripping images.
Opus No. 7 is not your usual theatre piece, which is nothing new for Krymov and his company. Specifically, the contemporary arts performance is modelled after the form of the one-act ballet, with each act telling a distinctive narrative, completely removed from the other. In essence, it’s a two-for-one performance – exceptional value, given that either act as a standalone performance would likely blow your mind.
Genealogy, the more emotionally and politically charged of the two pieces, examines the persecution and murder of Soviet Jews. Seven actors take to the desolate stage, literally painting the picture of their fallen comrades. Live action, music, art, sound and multimedia are seamlessly interwoven to produce a taut, heart-wrenching remembrance of the many who were lost to a murderous regime, and their connection to all of us. Design elements are introduced, re-imagined and re-worked within the narrative arc of the piece, as though the props and staging are given their own character journey. You can almost see the workshopping underlying each moment, as image is layered upon image to produce richness and emotion far greater than the sum of their parts. X-ray images held aloft by actors summon projected photographs of those who were taken. A media clip of a German soldier callously kicking a pram is translated into a real pram scuttling across the stage, hiding its bounty of children’s shoes. In one of the most powerful moments of art I have ever witnessed, literally thousands of newspaper clippings, each representing one of the dead, are cannoned toward the audience. In these moments, regardless of the language of the text, it is impossible not to feel connected – to both the work, and the fallen people it depicts.
After a thirty-minute interval, the audience is invited into a completely reconfigured theatre space – the previous set gone, a new one in its place. The second act, Shostakovich, is a slightly lighter affair than the first, but only slightly. The play observes the biography of Dmitry Shostakovich – originally hailed as a genius composer, but who fell out of favour with Stalin’s regime for introducing too many Western influences and becoming too ‘formal’ to meet the demands of populist composition, a deadly prospect for artists in this time. The central motif of the second act is a twelve-foot puppet representing Mother Russia, who at different times raises, nurtures, crushes and attempts to kill the composer. There are some superb images in this piece – a demolition derby of metal pianos being hurled at each other, Shostakovich embroiled in a thrilling chase scene with the puppet after it has assassinated arts figures such as Meyerhold and Akhmatova, and the state ‘awarding’ Shostakovich with a medal, symbolically represented as a pin through the heart of his creativity. However, in comparison with the first act, there were scenes that lingered too long, and meaning was harder to piece together because the audience lacked connection with the source material. Regardless, the intelligence and nimble design still left the audience spellbound.
The performances, across the board, are outstanding. While the work is delivered in Russian, with multiple monitors displaying English subtitles, the conviction and vulnerability of the delivery gives us insight into the characters and emotion well beyond the text that we read. They deliver emotive monologues, spine-tingling opera and visceral trumpet-playing with equal verve, and there are no weak links in the company. Most notably, their ability to communicate physically is exceptional. Whether they are held aloft as a human chandelier, attached to a spinning piano, or simply hands occupying a dead man’s overcoat, their collective ability to communicate without words is central to the success of the rousing images in the performances, and they carry this work with aplomb.
However, one certainly feels that in this kind of show, the actors are almost incidental – just another prop to be worked with, manipulated and inspired to create meaning. It feels as though Krymov turns the production process on its head – instead of the design being used as an auxiliary component to enhance the dramatic action, the design is the dramatic action, and it is the actor’s job to draw out the best of the staging and props. It is as affecting as any work by Chekhov or Shakespeare, but it hits you like a sucker punch, as your brain scrambles to process the visual experience and piece together the meaning. It is dynamic, epic in scale and utterly fearless, both joyously painful and terribly uplifting.
For most, it is rare that a particular work changes how I think about performance. For me, I believe that Opus No. 7 is that work. It is innovative and compelling viewing, thoroughly original and sublimely entertaining. It is shows like this that the Perth International Arts Festival exists to showcase, and I would implore you to take the opportunity.
2017 Perth International Arts Festival
Opus No. 7
Dmitry Krymov Laboratory
Venue: ABC Perth Studios | 30 Fielder Street, East Perth WA
Dates: 21 – 26 Feb 2017
Tickets: $85 – $25