Theatre in Wales

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Ambitious and demanding theatre


National Youth Theatre of Wales- An Informer's Duty , Riverfront Newport , September 22, 2006
At NYTW by National Youth Theatre of Wales- An Informer's Duty This review first appeared in the Western Mail...

Whatever the times, there are some plays that seem appropriate – and Greg Cullen’s ambiguous docudrama about the composer Shostakovich and his Soviet dictator Stalin is one such.

The story, in brief, tells of the tortuous relationship between the artist and the state – and at a time in Wales when the state is threatening to take over arts policy that’s an issue that’s hot here anyway, although that may not have been the only reason that some arts council apparatchiks left at the interval.

Because while that is it in a nutshell, this is a long and complex narrative, longer than Shostakovich’s fifth symphony, the barbed musical apology that acts as a kind of counterpoint to the drama. It is about the composer and his fellow-artists and their fight to express themselves as they wanted, rather than in a populist, dumbed-down way the authorities wanted (and gosh, does that sound familiar !). Alongside Shostakovich we meet the poet Anna Akhmatova and theatre director-writer Vsevolod Meyerhold and other dissidents (as they would now be called), all labelled “formalists” by Stalin – artists who were more interested in experimenting with form than with celebrating communism.

There are, indeed, as many characters as there are in any Russian novel – over thirty roles - and just as sprawling a storyline, too.

When I first saw An Informer’s Duty it was at the Welsh College of Music and Drama and it included an eighty-piece orchestra and dealt with the clash between artist and state in the context of post-revolutionary Russia; some years later I saw Mid-Powys Youth Theatre’s ambitious and excellent version (also directed by Cullen), where the classical symphony had morphed into hiphop and it was inspired and informed by the Tory government’s legal constraints on raves; now it is revived by the National Youth Theatre of Wales at a time when religious intolerance threatens artistic freedom – and NAG arts policy seeks to support only work that does you good and is “accessible”… New Labour instrumentalism isn’t so far from socialist realism, it seems.

This time Cullen is even more ambitious – no orchestra but an epic piece of performance that pays eloquent homage to Soviet artists, designers and filmmakers of an era that was effectively exploited, distorted and then crushed by Stalin, delivered with impressive enthusiasm and rigour by the NYTW participants. With such impressive ensemble work, it would be unfair to single out individual performances but Leo Jofeh’s Shostakovich, Carwyn James’s Stalin and Catrin Stewart’s Nina were outstanding.

Phil Williams’s choreography was stunning, at times recreating Eistenstein images on the stage, at others expressionistically evoking lyricism, agony and despair, and the knowing constructivist design from Rachael Canning and Charlotte Neville was witty and bold.

Among the many striking images was that of the artist as signified by the harlequin-costumed musicians among the drabness of a Soviet Union that was losing its way, the spirit of freedom that is never silenced despite oppression; and, towards the end, ropes representing musical staves that entwine and entrap the composer.

All this could seem like pretentiousness by Cullen and I suspect audiences either love it or hate it. It is, it must be admitted, an often confusing and always a very demanding piece of theatre – three hours of difficult-to-follow storyline, erratic surtitling of those parts in Welsh, a political perspective that isn’t easy to grasp. And it climaxes in a disconcerting succession of images of familiar faces that includes Blair, Bush, Einstein, Bob Geldorf, Che Guevara, Stephen Hawking, JFK, Martin Luther King, Mandela, Lee Harvey Oswald, Princess Diana, Roosevelt, Mother Theresa… suspect heroes, tainted saints or just a warning never to put ones trust in leaders ?

Reviewed by: David Adams

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