Theatre

A Model for Mankind @ Cock Tavern, London



cast list
Paul Brendan, Shereen Martineau, Jonathan Bonnici, Richard Keightley, Jack Lewis

directed by
Blanche McIntyre
A few years after Shostakovich died in 1975, his memoirs, as told to musicologist Solomon Volkov, were published in the West.

Debate has raged ever since over the authenticity of the work, which appears to exonerate the composer of compliance in the will of his political masters.

His supporters, and opponents to the Soviet Union, seized on the portrait of a brave artist defying a corrupt and tyrannical system but the mystery of Shostakovichs exact relationship with the ruling party remains.

It must be 20 years since I read Volkovs Testimony but what lingers in the memory is the titanic personal struggle between the composer and Stalin, a covert one, as the tyrant had the power to wipe out any opponent with the wave of a hand. Instead, Shostakovich chose to undermine and subvert through heavily coded artistry, passing off his formalist composition as adherence to the party line. His Fifth Symphony, a Soviet artists reply to just criticism following his near-crucifixion for upsetting Stalin with his Lady Macbeth opera, is supposedly ironic rather than triumphalist.

But, while its an attractive picture of a David and Goliath fight, its one that was arguably intended to reinstate the composers reputation after his death and New Yorker James Sheldons new play which, with flights of fantasy including a bi-sexual love triangle involving a Jewish agitator Isaak Bashevsky and a young translator, muddies the water further.

The framework is an investigation by the authorities in 1979 attempting, in the light of the Volkov book, to prove that Shostakovich was no dissident but a faithful servant of the system and a Great Patriot who betrayed his former friend Bashevsky, consequently assassinated in America. There are some interesting ideas floating around in Sheldons script in particular the exploration of whether forging something you know to be true is a lie or just an authentication of the truth – but an over-literalness in much of the writing smacks of theatrical timidity.

The same could be said of Blanche McIntyres production. She and designer Lucy Read hamper themselves by cramming the tiny stage of the Cock Tavern with benches, a filing cabinet, desk, chair and lecterns, causing the actors to shuffle and squeeze themselves around obstacles, when a lone chair would suffice.

Stylish projections by Adam Tyler, artfully shot and allowing us to see off-stage action such as the murder of Bashevsky, could have been used more boldly and extensively (budget permitting, of course).

The five actor cast work hard to dodge between characters and ages as well as furniture, as the play flits around a 50 year period. Paul Brendan as Shostakovichs doctor Albedov, in particular, has his work cut out persuading us hes in his late 70s. Richard Keightley is a nerdish Mitya, seen mostly as a young and pliable prodigy.

As with many a conspiracy theory and biographical mystery, the truth about Shostakovichs rocky path between artistic licence and sheer survival will continue to fascinate, and Sheldons play adds something to the debate. More poetry and less reliance on personal narrative (true or otherwise) would help it fly.



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