Sometimes the simplest actions can be the most eloquent. Opus No 7, performed by the Dmitry Krymov Lab from Moscow and appearing in London as part of the London International Festival of Theatre (LIFT), opens in playful mood. On a wide stage backed with huge slabs of white cardboard, the actors begin by singing simple melodies and flinging black paint at the cardboard wall. It’s dippy, childlike behaviour. But add a few little props and suddenly the black shapes on the wall turn into Jewish elders. We realise that the young people before us are trying to reassemble through memory an extinct community: that the subject is anti-Semitic atrocities in the former Soviet Union and beyond. So when, suddenly, gaps break open in the wall and a howling wind blows millions of tiny scraps of paper into the audience, which settle on them like ashes, it becomes an overwhelming stage metaphor for massacre. And when one actor takes a tiny pair of red shoes and makes them walk again, tripping through the debris, this small gesture becomes devastatingly poignant.
But this dazzling piece of theatre about oppression isn’t all sombre. This is also a show, defiant in its attitude and playful spirit, about artistic imagination. Through images, sounds, music and stories the performers conjure the lost community: the figures on the wall come to life. Krymov started out as a stage designer, his visual imagination drives the show, producing images that work through accumulation and that draw on the radical traditions of Russian theatre.
In the second part, the focus shifts from the basic two dimensions of the wall to the solid, triangular form of a grand piano. Pianos, rough, elegant or battered, become a recurrent symbol through the action, which revolves specifically around Shostakovich and his anguished relationship with the Soviet authorities. Again, Krymov and his cast speak not through language but through imagery and sound. A massive articulated puppet of Mother Russia introduces us to the tiny, restive composer, first petting him then smothering him. He’s boxed in, hung up, paraded and decorated and the movement grows to a climax during which his mighty Seventh Symphony gathers in intensity and rusted pianos battle with one another.
The nimble cast paint, sing, climb, act and dance, bringing a light touch that offsets the raw anger that drives the show. Its determined, restless, sometimes opaque inventiveness is in itself symbolic: a vigorous retort to a nation’s grim history of attempts to crush expression and eliminate politically undesirable people.