Tuesday 1 August 2017

Master Class "spoofs" Stalin's USSR censorship
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

Backdrop to the script : A Canadian self-described "ex-composer" named Julian Lee was the impetus behind UK's prolific dramatist David Pownall penning Master Class. The show is an imagined midnight vodka-guzzle with the grizzled Georgian bear Joseph Stalin and his culture commissar Andrei Zhdanov. Together they rage against composers Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich and others heading up the Union of Composers for their "anti-Soviet" compositions.

To provoke him, Lee in the mid-70's provided Pownall a slim 103-page volume by BBC correspondent Alexander Werth who reported on the 1948 Conference on Musicians in Moscow. It was less a "conference" than a show trial. From Werth's 1949 book Musical Uproar in Moscow plus the accompanying minutes of the conference, Lee challenged Pownall to "respond" to those events that had occurred some 30 years previously. 

Shostakovich, Prokofiev and Khachaturian stand accused as the chief perpetrators of a musical style dominating the USSR's Union of Composers. The meeting minutes condemn them as guilty of "formalist perversions and many undemocratic tendencies (that) include atonalism, dissonance, contempt for melody and the use of chaotic and neuropathic discords -- all alien to the artistic tastes of the Soviet people." For his part, in his closing remarks to the conference Zhdanov referred to them as "academics" whose works were utterly deficient compared to the "poetic realism" of such as Tchaikovsky, Rimski-Korsakov and Mussorgsky.

Sergei Prokofiev (Chris Robson) offers up a bit of atonality to Zhdanov (James Gill) & Stalin (Tariq Leslie). 
Photo by Javier R. Sotres
What resulted from Pownall's consideration of all this was an attempt to bridge the history of grim repressive Communist censorship with no few bits of whimsical Brit-inspired comic flair not all that far off Monty Python ("I spit in your general direction!") stuff. All in all the script is less a look at the composers than it is a caricature of the Soviet leader Stalin and his consigliari Zhdanov (who, anticipated to be Stalin's successor, would die just seven months after the February, 1948 conference.) 

From the footlights : Reviewing the New York Odyssey Theatre opening in 1987, NYT critic Dan Sullivan told viewers that the show is not "a grim study in totalitarian thought control". He counseled : "Don't think 'Darkness at Noon.' Think 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf.'" And, having reviewed the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre production of Master Class that same year for the Now newspaper group, I remember referring to the script back then as "a juicy little potboiler" : thus no question the Sullivan comparison is wholly apt.

The show is a character study that reveals Prokofiev as an ailing 56-year-old man willing to risk trading verbal shots with Stalin, 69. (They would both die on March 5, 1953.) The considerably younger Shostakovich, meanwhile, 41, betrays a diffidence and nervous reticence in the face of the sarcastic onslaught of shame flung his way by these formidable and dangerous leaders, only standing up to their sneering bully-boy antics once or twice.

Dmitri Shostakovich (Chris Lam) reveals the pain and fear that underscore his musical genius.
Javier R. Sotres photo
Act 1 concludes with purposeful violence against Prokofiev and his musical creations and was by far the only climactic scene in the show. (No Spoiler-alert here on purpose). The show concludes after a dithery Act 2 and does so with a whimper, not a bang : Stalin passes out, wearied by his vodka binge in the dim dawn hour. But not before some delicious satire and smart fretwork on the keyboard wrought by Chris Robson portraying Prokofiev.

What the show brings to the stage : Some have dismissed Pownall's script, in effect, as "random rhetoric in search of a clear dramatic purpose". Not so fast, say I. It has, after all, been performed in some 20 countries and translated countless times for staging in ex-Soviet states. And while it is a fool's errand to summon USA's Donald Trump ad nauseam, there are comparisons to be made particularly with the descent, however short-lived, of Anthony Scaramucci into the bowels of the White House inner sanctum. 

Consider anew New Zealand critic John Smythe's cut at Pownall's Zhdanov character ten years back : "...Zhdanov personifies the truism that despots can only wield widespread power when thick-headed sycophants and delusional sociopaths sign on to implement the frontline abuse." So there is relevance in examining how the heavy hand of autocratic power corrupts. Absolutely, just as Lord Acton observed when Stalin was still in short pants at the seminary in Georgia. 

Production values that shine through : There is much to like in the staging of this show, particularly the Lauchlin Johnston set that engages all four corners of the chummy Jericho stage well indeed. Costumes and lighting effects accompanied Johnston's set in harmony, no cacophony anywhere.

What prevents the script from engaging us as compellingly as it did 30 years back, however, is just history. When Pownall wrote it in the early 80's, the Gorbachev expressions glasnost (cultural warming) and perestroika (restructuring) were barely known outside the Soviet Union, the USSR that is no more. And no question the current autocrat in power in Moscow is Russian to the core : no Georgian satellite DNA in his blood nor Mongolian nor Ukrainian nor Uzbek. So the show easily could have been cut, particularly in the second act, by 15-20 minutes and none of its theme would have been sacrificed by as much as a grace note. 

Stalin tries to assist the composers in writing a piece taken from the Georgian medieval poet Shota Rustaveli's classic "The Knight in the Tiger's Skin". Clearly good music is not forthcoming. But some hilarity is.
Javier R. Sotres photo
Acting pin-spots : My recollection of the Playhouse production of '87 was the role of Stalin, played here engagingly and forcefully by Ensemble Theatre Artistic Director Tariq Leslie. What I did not remember was how rich and compelling the role of Andrei Zhdanov is in the play, excellently rendered in this production.by James Gill. It is in the Zhdanov character that Pownall's droll Pythonesque one-liners pop out spontaneously and expressively.

Personally the second act, for this reviewer, comes down to Chris Robson's Prokofiev riffing off a pastiche of musical forms trying to tie together the Rastafeli medieval poem with its lion, tiger the knight Tario together with Jack London, Siberia, and wolf ghosts. Oh what fun a ride that is. Opposite Robson in both personal style and height was Chris Lam playing Dmitri Shostakovich who Zhdanov accuses of writing "miserable, whining, complaining dirges all the time". His response? "Maybe I'm a depressive...". Pownall's understated, tongue-in-cheek Brit smartassery comes through cleverly in such stuff.

Who gonna like : This is a period piece that is incapable of clutching our hearts and minds with the force it did in the mid-80's for the historical reasons noted above. But for people who have a jones for Soviet history and the effects of totalitarian thinking. For people who are alive to the cultural context of why moderns such as Prokofiev and Shostakovich might have been considered so un-Soviet in the post-WW II world. For people interested how a nation faced up to the fact that 20 million lost their lives -- a whole generation of adults, leaving only grandparents and grandkids in their wake -- this is an interesting dramatic snapshot, no question. Proof positive, too, how The State, in whatever iteration it appears on earth, cannot successfully suppress the muse for true artists.

Particulars : Produced by Ensemble Theatre Company.  At Jericho Arts Centre, 1675 Discovery Street.  On until August 18.  Tickets & schedule from the company website www.ensembletheatrecompany.ca.  Run-time 140 minutes, including two intermissions.

Production team : Script by David Pownall. Director Evan Frayne.  Assistant Director Shelby Bushnell.  Set Designer Lauchlin Johnston.  Lighting Designer Patrick Smith.  Costume Designer Julie White.  Sound Designer James Coomber.  Stage Manager Karen Chiang. 

Performers :  James Gill (Zhdanov).  Chris Lam (Shostakovich).  Tariq Leslie (Stalin). Chris Robson (Prokofiev).  

Addendum :  Ensemble Theatre Company, in its fifth Vancouver summer repertory season, describes itself thus : "Vancouver-based Ensemble Theatre Company is dedicated to producing accessible and relevant theatre. The company sees theatre as an essential cultural force in leading and framing dialogue on current issues, and takes artistically innovative approaches to classics as well as mounting challenging modern and contemporary plays. The non-profit arts organization is devoted to nurturing both artists and audiences, creating a place of inclusion and a forum for ideas and dialogue."


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