At some point as a schoolboy, my classmates and I were under instructions to keep a weekly diary, even during the school holidays. There was a degree of self-censorship because the diary entries were to be written in a school exercise book and marked (or, rather, read) by the teacher. Ostensibly the purpose was to help pupils develop creative writing skills, though I remain ignorant to this day as to what exactly is so creative about writing down the significant events of the past week – unless one was supposed to be economical with the truth. Anyway, about halfway through a performance of The Conductor, the play’s narrative brought to mind that diary (which was unceremoniously bunged into a paper recycling receptacle many years ago), because I still recall being bizarrely brought to task for writing that I had been moved by a piece of music, when in fact I hadn’t, physically speaking, ‘moved’ an inch.
It’s quite an achievement, I think, for the music in this production to have moved me. Dmitri Shostakovich’s (1906-1975) Symphony No. 7, was written for orchestra, but excerpts of it are played in the show by David Wallington on the piano with no other musicians for company. The conductor of what was then known as the Leningrad Radio Orchestra, Karl Eliasberg (1907-1978) (Joseph Skelton), stayed on in Leningrad – the city now known as St Petersburg – when it was under siege by the Nazis. The Soviets had evacuated who they could, prioritising the weak, the elderly and children. Eliasberg’s mother (Deborah Wastell, who also takes a number of other characters during the play) was one of those people who wouldn’t budge even though she was eligible for evacuation.
There are history books and online resources aplenty that can give as many details as one requires as to the catastrophic impact the Siege of Leningrad had on its population. This is a most unusual play set in wartime, focusing on Eliasberg’s attempts to have Symphony No. 7 performed in its composer’s home city, rather than the military movements and/or political activity. Subjects like the (im)morality of war and the reconstruction of post-war Leningrad are for another time, which seemed fair enough given the plight of Leningrad’s people. Members of the orchestra had to overcome extraordinary odds just to stay alive let alone play instruments – for that reason, if someone were to ask me whether I enjoyed the play, I would have to go with “No”.
That, of course, is not a bad thing in context, and there’s no denying that this is a triumph over adversity story. But it’s also not unlike one of those unsettling movies where too many people meet a sorry and untimely end. Symphony No. 7 is, fundamentally, a war symphony, and some of it, as performed in this production, is suitably aggressive and combative at times. In other places, though, there’s a palpable feeling that the music proceeds with a mixture of fear and caution, like a Leningrader quite literally trying to get to where they are going in one piece. The latter is even more harrowing than the former.
As I never tire of saying, productions succeed when they can be understood by someone coming to see the show without having done any background reading at all beforehand. The Conductor is one such play: one need not necessarily know anything about classical music, Shostakovich, Eliasberg or the Siege of Leningrad to follow proceedings. When the music plays, the narrative doesn’t stop, even if the dialogue does – it’s very different to a song-and-dance number in a musical that stops the storyline for a few minutes. The set is kept simple and straightforward, almost forcing a reliance on the script to establish time and location. A fascinating and eye-opening production.
Review by Chris Omaweng
In 1941. Troops have surrounded the city of Leningrad, in what would come to be known as the Leningrad Blockade, a siege of more than 2 years and one that would claim the lives of more than 1 million people. In the midst of this devastation, composer Dmitri Shostakovich worked tirelessly compose his “symphony for the people.”
Based on the best-selling novel by Sarah Quigley, and adapted by Mark Wallington and Jared McNeill (Peter Brook’s international company), this is the true story of a sound that lifted an entire city in its darkest hour.
26 MAR – 13 APR 2019