by N.R. Radzik
'The Conductor' - The Space Theatre, Isle of Dogs | 26th March – 13th April
The first time I heard of Dmitri Shostakovich, it was my old history teacher giving an example of ‘subversives’ in Soviet Russia. The line often goes that the obsessive and nervous composer, who was known to send letters to himself to test the efficacy of the postal service, was ‘too famous’ in the West to be murdered or silenced.
The composer’s relationship with Soviet authorities was ambiguous. Obeisant to the Politburo in civil matters, Shotakovich had always been an implacable thorn in the Bolshevik party line concerning aesthetics, opting for polystylism and disarticulation over socialist realism – consciously or otherwise using Jewish folk themes in, for example, the Fourth String Quartet, during Stalin’s anti-Semitic campaigns in the ‘40s and ‘50s. But it was only until the bombastic and carnivalesque Ninth Symphony of 1945, ostensibly a triumphalist celebration of the destruction of the Third Reich, did a handful of Soviet and Western commentators venture a more satirical and complex understanding of Shostakovich.
The Seventh Symphony, by contrast, was blasted out from a Leningrad concert hall to besieging Wehrmacht troops and met with haunted silence (albeit after a period of heavy shelling). Problematically humane, patriotic, despondent, humorous and often terrifying, Shostakovich’s toponymical Seventh Symphony recalled the solidarity of an embattled population with nods to Tchaikovsky’s 1812 symphony (a celebration of Russia’s successful war of attrition against Napoleon).
Adapted from Sarah Quigley’s novel by Mark Wallington and Jared McNeil, The Conductor is the story of a city staving off hopelessness and hunger through music, told by the somewhat morbid and cantankerous conductor Karl Eliasberg (Joseph Skelton) and an assortment of Leningrad denizens, such as the conductor’s ailing mother and Shostakovich’s protective wife (Deborah Wastell).
Formerly St Paul’s church (aptly designed by T. E. Knightley, architect of the famous concert hall at Langham Place gutted during the blitz), The Space auditorium provides the sombre brick backdrop and liturgical acoustics evocative of a besieged, mournful city – a strength the minimalistic set (two chairs, one piano) makes the best of.
Daniel Wallington, portraying Shostakovich, is a stunningly dexterous and impassioned pianist. He plays movements of the symphony intermittently throughout the piece, providing both a score and several diegetic sequences – notably involving the awestruck conductor gazing from the doorway as he hears the symphony for the first time. “Of course I have no heart,” he laments toward the beginning, “I gave my heart to Shostakovich.” This statement the audience will have no trouble believing.
Wallington’s character portrayal retains a poise and dramatic self-consciousness that does not quite seem reflective of the often naive and fragile composer neoclassical musicology nerds might recognise. But the piece overall is not a biopic or portrait of the composer, and in fact Shostakovich is more idea than flesh in The Conductor. Rather, the play follows the embittered eponymous Eliasberg, whose story is told without really being dramatically accounted for. We know that his father has died and that his hometown is under siege by Nazis, but that is pretty much all we know (and this we could have gathered from the synopsis). It is from the theatrical elements of the show the audience could expect more.
A major challenge for the lonely cast of three is to create the atmosphere of Leningrad from 1941-44, including an array characters and contexts with vividness and diversity. While the significance of Shostakovich as a unifying and emboldening force in Russian life is established, the agony and terror of the Siege of Leningrad is not. The wieldy novelistic style is woven into both the narration and the dialogue, making some scenes flat and some monologues not theatricalised enough to cultivate the audience’s sincere sympathy for Leningrad’s decimated populace. Because role changes involve a shift of shawl and accent (Scottish = old + poor, apparently), the performances are monotonous in contrast to the intense reaches of Wallington’s piano.
But the story itself is well articulated, and for those interested in the intersection of music and politics, or the period generally, it is an interesting show to digest. The music, if I may semi-reiterate, is dedicated and masterful. With a more imaginative approach to adaptation and stronger character acting, the show could have been excellent.
The Conductor continues to run at The Space Theatre, London, until April 13th. Ticket info