PIAF: Opus No. 7

Opus No. 7 - photo by Natalia Cheban“You have to serve one master,” muses director Dmitry Krymov in Opus No. 7’s post-show Q&A. “To serve two… doesn’t really work.”

This was supposed to be a nugget of hard-earned wisdom, referring to Krymov’s decision to focus on theatre at the expense of his painting career. The director should start by taking his own advice. Opus No. 7 is a theatre work which suffers from trying to span too many artistic mediums, ultimately satisfying the demands of none.

Its concept was allegedly inspired by George Balanchine’s one-act ballets: more specifically, an instance in which Krymov viewed two such ballets back-to-back. Opus No. 7 follows the same format, with two distinct acts presented as a double feature, and a half-hour intermission in between.

The juxtaposition is intended to give rise to serendipitous parallels and relations of meaning, which is a nice idea in theory. Unfortunately it doesn’t really eventuate, and the structure results in a shrug-worthy pairing of disparate halves – though this is the least of the show’s problems.

Act One, or ‘the first part’, loosely explores the genealogy of Jesus Christ, intergenerational memory and the plight of the Jewish people in eastern Europe during the Holocaust. These, of course, are tremendous themes to contend with, especially the latter – and they invite a certain sense of gravitas.

I wouldn’t go so far as to accuse Krymov of intentionally exploiting historical tragedy to add weight to his show, but it does seem there’s little else to buttress the first act’s motley content: obtuse narrative meandering, slapstick stage antics, ostentatious prop-tinkering; flimsy choreography, randomly scattered musical numbers and high-school calibre acting. Certainly, and in isolation, there are things to like.

The music itself is beautifully arranged and the singing is excellent. The neat transformation of a black paint-splash into an archetypal orthodox Jew using minimal props is visually compelling. The continual repurposing of a false wall for myriad uses (including the eerie conjuring of empty overcoats to life) is clever. Memorably, billowing clouds of smoke and Russian newspaper clippings blasted ferociously through intense lighting into the crowd make for an impressive spectacle.

But in the end these things feel like cheap party tricks that fail to meet the purported themes on the appropriate level. To put it more bluntly: the play falls short of saying anything about religion or memory or the Holocaust. Stunts and images are thrown together, confused and noncommittal, never amounting to any political statement or even a specific emotional impression.

The act’s bumbling symbolism is either vague (as with a cringe-worthy on-stage game of soccer), or ham-fistedly obvious (screen-projected photos of Jews with the sounds of bombs dropping; a child’s empty shoes being made to walk ghost-like across the stage). The latter examples convey tragic loss, but to what end? Yes, we know such awful things happened – but amid the circus of imagery, one is left wondering what Krymov actually wants to tell us.

Act two takes us into a new space with chairs lining the perimeter. By way of introduction, a giant puppet of an older woman walks slowly through the room. It’s pretty awkward, especially with the house lights still on, but at least it’s a unique kind of segue. This second act focuses on the persecution and censorship of composer Dmitri Shostakovich under the soviet regime, and does a much better job of semi-abstracted storytelling than its first-act counterpart.

The dramatic metaphors here strike up a better balance, being both readily apprehended and artfully poignant, as when the young Shostakovich is speared through the heart with a Soviet Badge of Honour, or wrapped anaconda-like in the tubular arm of some unseen authority.

The puppet becomes an intimidating avatar for ‘Mother Russia’, wielding a pistol and at one point occasioning a genuinely entertaining gun chase. But for the most part, this act isn’t much more engaging than the first. Scenes are painfully drawn out – each development feeling like too little, too late. A ballroom dance scene with cardboard cut-out figures is woefully executed.

The props – including several variations on the grand piano motif – are milked for more than they’re worth. The puppet starts to feel like a desperate tool for garnering easy laughs. And while the modernist avant-garde leanings of Opus No. 7 feel somewhat more relevant in the context of Shostakovich’s artistic curtailment, nothing about it feels half as daring or worthwhile as the work it’s paying homage to. It all peters out, with some pretentious dialogue and a tedious denouement. I’m thrilled for it to end.

It’s not often I’m so negative about a show, but Opus No. 7 made me furious insofar as it enacts a justification for so many criticisms often leveled at the arts. It’s not readily accessible – it feels willfully obscure and pseudo-intellectual. It deals with important events and themes, but tackles them with a garbled and convoluted vocabulary that tries to juggle drama, installation, dance, comedy, music and more, resulting in a frustrating and incoherent mess.

Having seen the play, I can’t relay anything more about its agenda, import or “meaning” than what’s already written in the online blurb, – and this critique might not matter if it truly were a “deeply moving, visually majestic experience” (per the PIAF presser). It isn’t. At best, it’s a half-baked jumble with some technical prowess and unrealised potential.

I’d noticed critics from the West Australian to the New York Times raving about Opus No. 7. Which had me wondering: have I lost the plot? Do I just not get it? It is supposed to look and feel as crummy as it does?

I wondered aloud to my friend tonight, who responded with another anecdote. “It’s funny, I also saw a really shit Russian play a while back. It was totally disjointed, had a giant puppet that kept pissing everywhere, and seemed to have little to do with the original text… A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

I broke out laughing, quickly realising that he was referring to another Krymov production. At least I was not alone in feeling like this was an ‘emperor’s new clothes’ kind of situation. Opus No 7 is theatre characterised by grandiose yet naïve ambition, and the subsequent failure to pierce through its own self-indulgence: a tale full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Opus No. 7
ABC Perth Studios, 30 Fielder Street, East Perth
Performance: Wednesday 22 February 2017
Season: 21 – 26 February 2017
Information: www.perthfestival.com.au

Image: Opus No. 7 – photo by Natalia Cheban

Review: Lyndon Blue