Mother Russia and her children
Mother Russia and her children
© Natalie Cheban

Opus No 7 is a play which turns theatre around on its head and you question if it is beyond theatre and some kind of magic. This performance in a sports hall at the University of East Anglia is so compelling that you forget you are in a sports hall but in two different worlds in each act.

Given Dimitri Krymov's roots as a set designer who has become a director, you can understand why the relationship between actor and set is transformed in Opus No 7.

Rather than the set being a backdrop to support the actors in their performance, the actors are literally part of the set: in one of the early scenes of the first act, holes are cut out of a cardboard wall, arms reach out to the actors on stage and along with the black painted images on this cardboard wall, we have the lost Jews of the Holocaust.

The first half of this play is a subtle but moving experience free of gimmicks. We have a variety of dramatic experiences which draw on the elements and touching the senses of the audience: suddenly at one moment, a tornado of newsprint is ejected through two holes which pierce the wall symbolising the gas chambers of the Holocaust.

Later on, we see a Nazi camp commander projected on to the cardboard walls: his jackboots clicking and his image almost 3D. And then like the gas chamber tornado, a pram is kicked by the virtual Nazi commandant through the cardboard wall and on to the performance space. Rather than the set being a static backdrop, it is alive and grasps out to the audience.

The second half of this two and half hour performance initially has a very different ambience from the sinister first half. The tone at first is lighter, almost comedic, and this provides welcome but surprising relief in the form of a giant puppet of Mother Russia and a Shostakovich at first being nurtured by this puppet.

Later on, Mother Russia becomes an assassin and a chase reminiscent of figure-skating occurs between her and the petite actress who plays Shostakovich.
Now the only words spoken are speeches given by Shostakovich (like all of the dialogue in this piece surtitled from the original Russian on screens hanging from the ceiling).

Many of the highlights of this act draw inspiration from dance rather than theatre: we have a squadron of metallic pianos encircling the performance space and then rammed together like funfair dodgem cars. We also have the various actors waltzing behind portraits of Shostakovich and the acrobatics of Shostakovich climbing a light fitting to escape his official minder.

This very intelligent piece of theatre is like one of Shostakovich's symphonies, various elements of performance and media ranging from ballet to video combine together to create a harmonious arrangement that transcends language due to the power of image and scene with very few words.