Theatre in Wales

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A stark, but oddly uplifting tale

At NYTW

National Youth Theatre of Wales- An Informer's Duty , Aberystwyth Arts Centre , September 4, 2006
At NYTW by National Youth Theatre of Wales- An Informer's Duty For one September weekend, Greg Cullen and the company of the National Youth Theatre of Wales, carrying all the force of Stalin’s Great Terror, swept into Aberystwyth’s Theatr y Werin at the start of their three-venue tour of Cullen’s Soviet-era play ‘An Informer’s Duty’. No-one who saw it will, we are sure, soon forget its stark, but oddly uplifting tale of the fight for free art in a land possessed by the spirit of uniform culture.

The play focuses on the composer Dimitri Shostakovich and his uneasy alliance with Stalin as Russia’s ‘Number One Composer’, set against the backdrop of his own uncertain and terror-filled existence, as well as that of his colleagues, where art was enforcedly optimistic, but arrest, torture and death were commonplace and, indeed, expected fates.

The set was both bold and pragmatic in its design, using a cog as the central playing space to symbolise the industrial nature of Stalin’s Russia, but juxtaposing this with its primary use as Shostakovich’s home. Another dominant feature of the set was Stalin himself, the performer given a physically higher playing space overlooking the rest of the company. Also, by use of projection of a live stream of the performer, he was made a near-permanent, omniscient presence. Although an open set, it proved multi-functional, allowing performers, musicians and often spectacular technical effects to engage with every region and thus vie, sometimes distractingly, for audience attention.

A satisfyingly ethereal central performance was offered by Leo Jofeh, whose measured but emotionally charged style of delivery, as subtly nuanced as Shostakovich’s works, gave a solid fulcrum to a powerful but delicately balanced show that once more proved Greg Cullen’s worth as an uncompromising but top-drawer director. Jofeh, along with Carwen James, who gave a barnstorming, witty and bullish showing as Stalin, are definitely ones to watch.

Also highly notable were Catrin Stewart who brought immaculately flawed humanity to Shostakovich’s wife Nina; Mari Beard who, through word and movement brought home the grief of a victim of the Terror, as well as a wife forever on the point of despair, and Geraint Edwards, whose Marshal Tukhachevsky provided the uneasy link between art and state with an easy grace and a keen humanity. Iestyn Thomas was a witty delight, rich with Dorothy Parker-esque waspishness as Shostakovich’s boozy friend Mikhail, while Chris Cookson was deliciously evil as fan-turned-Stalin-acolyte Tikhon.

Special mention must be made also of the rare beauty of Lowri Walton’sturn as Anna Akhmatova, the Russian poetess whose lines were rendered into Welsh for this bilingual production. Walton spoke of strength within terror with a poise and professionalism rarely seen in today’s theatre.

The dialogues was an effortless mix of English and Welsh which did not impinge on an English-speaker’s enjoyment, as direction and judicious subtitling ensured the story was always told clearly.

The dialogue was juxtaposed with a series of extremely affecting, often disturbing and not always easy-to-follow movement sequences, under the direction of choreographer Phil Williams. Though occasionally bordering on the overlong, they were powerful auxiliaries to Cullen’s generally fluid and always arresting text.

Of course, none of this would have been so galvanising without the symbiotic environments of light, sound and costume. The lighting design perfectly complemented the text through being by turns Shostakovian in its subtlety and Stalinistic in its starkness, enhancing the show’s overall emphasis on contrasting views.

This was also fantastically achieved through the soundscape, where a surprisingly complementary mix of classical and modern music worked in tandem with period and topical soundbites, demonstrating both the designer’s and the director’s sympathetic approach to sound design.

Again, in costume design, we saw the contrast of points of view – the conservative Stalinistic costume of 1930s Russia set against the beautifully outlandish costume and make-up of the highly talented band of live onstage musicians, while aspects of Shostakovich’s mind rendered onstage produced a costume environment of strikingly and necessarily expressionistic proportions. The design team deserve the heartiest of congratulations.

The company realised Cullen’s theory that theatre is one of the last bastions of the free expression of views in an increasingly illiberal society. Above all, they turned the theatre into a non-violent battleground and proved that even a torn-up score retains its music.

The tour continue to the Pavilion Theatre in Rhyl, September 5th and 6th, and The Riverfront, Newport, September 8th and 9th. It should not be missed by anyone for whom theatre is, or is not, still a force to be reckoned with.

Reviewed by: James Ellington and Paddy Cooper

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