Modest Mussorgsky’s great piano suite has been orchestrated and arranged many times, notably by Ravel, but there has never been a choreography, or a staging, as far as anyone knows; and nothing like this extraordinary collaboration between the Young Vic and Sadler’s Wells, directed by Daniel Kramer, with an amazing nightmare gallery design by Richard Hudson and a drunken composer lurching around inside his own music.
Pictures, says the poet (and first lyricist on Les Miserables) James Fenton, who has supplied a tantalising text, is an enigma wrapped in a biographical mystery. Mussorgsky dedicated the work to his friend, the painter and architect Victor Hartmann.
But the “programme” devised for the music, with an onstage pianist breaking up a soundtrack of the Ravel orchestrations and, at one point, a startling Modest megamix, is all about Mussorgsky’s homosexuality, his mother, his alcoholism, his red hair and his loneliness.
Only Ken Russell in his films about Mahler and Tchaikovsky has ever attempted anything similar. Edward Hogg, who was Kramer’s Woyzeck at the Gate, finds himself locked behind a huge red door in a gallery of receding perspectives, along with a septet of modern dancers, bare-breasted witches, soldiers, picture frames, dancing bears and a fridge full of vodka bottles.
The show is all about finding a physical expression for an inner tortured life, with a recurring poetic motif of dipping one’s hand in the dark water, the vodka bottle morphing into a baby’s bottle, then a penis. And the mythical witch Baba Yaga, who lives in a house which stands on chicken’s feet, becomes an alternative Mother Russia whose eggs spawn mixed up mooncalves like old Modest.
You can’t deconstruct a performance like this. You either resist it as maudlin gothic hokum or go with the flow. I’m in the second camp all the way, chiefly because the music itself is so utterly irresistible and the production, despite the occasional lapse into modern dance cliché (Kramer himself co-choreographs with Frauke Requardt), is fulfilled and finished to a very high degree indeed, beautifully lit by Peter Mumford. One thing’s for sure: you’ll see nothing else like it all year.