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 The Theatreguide.London Review



A Model For Mankind
Cock Tavern Theatre Spring 2010

American playwright James Sheldon’s play imagining events in the life of Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich is a grim reminder of what life was like in Russia under Joseph Stalin’s dictatorship. The artist had to write, compose and paint what Stalin wanted – and what Stalin wanted was social realism. Those who dared to refuse – such as Ysevolod Meyerhold, the great Russian director – were shot; and so were their families, friends and colleagues. Millions were sent to their deaths in the 1930s.

Dmitri Shostakovich was one of the few members of the intelligentsia who managed to survive the horrific purges. His opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsenk District, had been premiered with great success in Leningrad in 1934 and been lauded throughout the Soviet Union and abroad.

In 1936 Stalin dropped in to see it, left at the interval, and the next day there was a three-column attack in Pravda under the headline “Muddle Instead of Music.” The writer, thought to be Stalin, but probably the Minister of Culture, lambasted “its deliberately discordant confused stream of sounds” and dismissed the opera as coarse, primitive and vulgar. “The music quacks, grunts and growls and suffocates itself… It tickles the perverted tastes of the bourgeoisie with its fidgety, screaming, neurotic music.”

The production was immediately withdrawn, putting a provisional end to Shostakovich’s career as a composer of opera. Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District did not re-appear until 1962 and then only in a revised and diluted version.

Had Stalin seen Richard Jones’s terrific production of the opera at the Royal Opera House in 2004, I think it’s safe to say that director, conductor, singers, orchestra, designer, stagehands and audience would all have been on their way to Siberia.

In Sheldon’s play Shostakovich (well played by Richard Keightley) is a meek and weak bisexual, whose bright, large, round spectacle frames do him no favours. He survives because he writes political music to order and because he is prepared to betray the dissident poet he loves. As a result of his betrayal the poet (exuberantly played by Jonathan Bonnici) is murdered.

I was slightly disconcerted to discover later that what I had been watching was fiction. There was no poet and there was no betrayal and no murder.

There is a particularly good performance by Paul Brendan as Shostakovich’s doctor and friend, who is also a fictional character. In fact all the characters in the play, except Shostakovich, are fictional.

Interestingly, Shostakovich’s son, Maxim, is in London to conduct the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at Cadogan Hall in his father’s Piano Concerto No 2 and Symphony No 5.

I wonder what Maxim would make of Sheldon’s portrait of his dad.

Robert Tanitch

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Review - A Model for Mankind - Cock Tavern 2010