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The Noise of Time: Shostakovich and Théatre de Complicité

It probably wasn’t the best choice for a romantic date: the driest piece of music ever written. But Yanik, my partner, had seemed willing to go and in my gloomier days Shostakovich had been one of my favorites so I thought it might be a nice introduction. I was also hoping he’d appreciate Theatre de Complicite’s staging. But it turned out I was gravely mistaken.

Basically the evening consisted of a multi-media canter through the life of the Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich followed by a performance by the Emerson Quartet of the 15th, his last string quartet. Unfortunately, this piece of music takes the notion of “bleak” to new levels and was the equivalent of theatrical anti-matter anihilating everything that preceded it.

Shostakovich does “bleak” very well. I’d listened to and enjoyed his second violin concerto, written just after the war, which perfectly captures the mourning, dreary sadness of post-war realities in Europe. But that was a universal sense of bleakness, it was the mournful bleakness of the steppes (one imagined). The last string quartet is the mute bleakness of Dmitri Shostakovich and Dmitri Shostakovich alone and thus remains virtually incomprehensible to anyone else.

Perhaps with this autobiographical specificity in mind, Complicité’s Simon McBurney responded to a commission from the Lincoln Centre last year and came up with a framing drama anchored firmly in the biographical data of Shostakovich’s life. There were all the recent trademark Complicité theatrical goods: slideprojections, voice and music montage, actors doing a witty ballet with suits-acting-as-puppets. And as usual there were some resonant ideas that threaded their way through the evening.

One of the central ones was the fate of radiowaves. Starting with the same false framing device Complicité used in Mnemonic, the performance began with a sound technician informing the audience that they were being recorded for BBC Radio 3. Later in the show, through the mosaic of text fragments, we realise that this fact is crucial for the show’s resonance. A voice tells us about the flight of Gagarin in space. (Gagarin, like Shostakovich, a Soviet hero twisted into a puppet by Stalin). Apparently during his orbit of Earth, the Russian cosmonaut sang DS’s patriotic song Rodina slïshit and we’re asked to imagine what happened to those radiowaves of Gagarin singing Shostakovich. Where are they now? Travelling still into the interstellar vastness of space according to the laws of physics. With this allusion in our mind, as we listen to the string quartet we wonder what will happen to the radio broadcast of this music…

But this clever device (which I only twigged after the show in the Barbican washrooms) only serves to highten one of the evening’s shortcominings. It’s essentially a radio event. The staging is totally irrelevant. A few nice choreographed moments of jumping around and lots of floating wireless sets, combined with some puppetry and slide projections doesn’t really add up to much. Also, the explicitness of the Complicite section only seemed the more banal when juxtoposed with the baffling opaqueness of the music. In fact any visual lead up to this extremely austere piece of chamber music was only going to lead us astray. It’s like reading a comic book version of the Nibelungen Saga in preparation for 17 hours of Wagner, or staring at a photo of Paul Celan and hoping it will shed some light on his poetry.

The fact that Complicité are – at their best – slightly derivative was doubly emphasized by the fact that this material was derivative of their earlier shows. Personally I always thought that Simon McBurneys borrowings from the Poles like Tadeuz Kantor, from Peter Brook and from Robert LePage were so little heavy handed as to rate as plunder. Here he was borrowing from himself…. the slide projections and voice collage from Mnemonic. The back drop of tiles reminiscent of Luci Cabrol…The fifties suits and brown lighting were Street of Crocodiles.

Still, to be fair, faced with a string quartet with 6 adagio movements and no emotional entrance point, any attempt to contextualise was doomed to failure. And the the montage of biographical fragments and snippets of radio history, morse code theory, cosmonautical anecdote did throw up some possible paths to approach this most hermetic of musical texts.

I personally latched onto the theme of death. The quartet was written in 1973 when Shostakovich was close to death. He’d been exiled into a series of hospitals and had lost the use of his hands. Bitterly disillusioned about his career as the Soviet Union’s most famous composer he retreated into the gunmetal grey world of these last quartets. And the most that you can do when listening to these impenetrable works is acknowledge the hard angular sound of Dimitri Shostakovich’s fear of death and bitterness at life.

Some way into the long opening movement, I slipped into that spacious samadhi that sometimes descends in the concert hall. I became lucidly aware of not only the scratchy music but of the 500 or so people sitting silently around me: some bored, some like Yanik annoyed, some like me very lucid.

And it suddenly came to me that we were all sitting here listening to Dmitri Shostakovich dying. And it wasn’t a universal statement. It was the opposite pole of art: the icily specific. Forever closed off to the world like an autobiographical artefact, fascinating but sealed in a perspex case and quite untouchable. All we could do was listen sympathetically to what another human being had felt when confronted with the fantastical reality of his own death. We could only conjure up Shostakovich in his hospital bed, shakily scribbling down these sounds. And then we had to turn away, embarrassed by our incomprehension.

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