A MODEL FOR MANKIND
by James Sheldon.
The CockTavern Theatre 125 Kilburn High Road NW6 6JH To 17 April 2010.
Sat 3pm Sun, Mon 7.30pm.
Runs 1hr 55min One interval.
TICKETS: 08444 771000.
Review: Timothy Ramsden
A steppe in the right direction towards uncovering musical, and political, secrets.
Alongside Sergei Prokofiev, who spent years abroad and died on the same day as Stalin in 1953, the Soviet Union’s greatest composer was Dmitri Shostakovitch. Both – as was shown in David Pownall’s 1983 Master Class – could be scared rigid by the dictator. Both had their revenge in music.
Prokofiev’s 1951 Meeting of the Volga and the Don laid the triumphalism on so thick only dictators and apparatchiks could miss the sarcasm. The younger Shostokovitch learned to act, and compose, in code. And not to seek performances for what he had written. As can be seen in James Sheldon’s new play, intriguing for anyone with interest in the composer or artistic repression in the Soviet Union, though perhaps having to work harder to involve others.
In 1979, four years after the composer’s death, publication of Testimony, his supposed memoirs, claimed Shostakovitch as a bitter opponent of the regime. But its authenticity has been doubted. And the music’s coded references can be personal rather than political; the most prominent, his 4-note musical autograph, being, quite possibly, both.
So there’s plenty for Sheldon to work with as his action shifts between a 1979 inquiry and events in the 1930s. Was Shostakovitch a loyalist? Did he write a letter luring an anti-Communist to his death in America (the murder’s played out in grainy film above Richard Keightley’s head as his Dmitri sits at his desk)? And was the price of his acquiescence the safety of the woman he loved? Was there an element of personal jealousy? What was the role of Soviet anti-semitism?
Possibilities curl round each other. Keightley shows the composer’s nervous manner combining with Soviet optimism easily enough until Stalinism hits him with denunciation of the initially successful opera he’s seen as a hymn to Soviet progress. After that, caution and calculation become his method of survival.
Though the time-transitions are awkward on the small stage, Blanche McIntyre’s production is alive to the uncertainties of these lives. In a capable cast, Jack Lewis is surprisingly credible as Gavanov, a surprisingly humane Soviet bureaucrat who values Shostakovitch: one apparatchik who knows the score.
Bashevsky: Jonathan Bonnici.
Anton: Paul Brendan.
Shostakovitch: Richard Keightley.
Gavanov: Jack Lewis.
Yelena: Shereen Martineau.
Director: Blanche McIntyre.
Designer: Lucy Read.