The Conductor – Space Theatre, London – Review by Eamon Somers
Until 13th April
The press release asked that reviewers be made aware of “the significance of classical music for the production,” so, before the show, I did my homework and listened to Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No 7; composed, at least a part, in Leningrad (now St Petersburg) during Hitler’s 872-day siege of the city. Shostakovich had been evacuated by the time 100,000 people a month were starving to death, but the Conductor (of the title) Karl Eliasberg and the starving remnants of his second rate orchestra (left behind in the city) were ordered by the Soviet authorities to prepare for a morale-boosting performance of the 7th to be relayed via loudspeakers, to troops on the front line, as an act of defiance against the Nazis.
A grand piano dominates the stage, almost hiding Shostakovich (Daniel Wallington) struggling to bang out the Symphony as it emerges from his besieged mind; four fingers of one hand on a snare drum conjuring up the driving war machine of the first movement.
Eliasberg (Joseph Skelton) describes his struggles to motivate his second-rate musicians (too weak to play their instruments) until he turns their meagre bread ration into an instrument of control, earning him the title of heartless. All the while, he is utterly in love with the music. He encourages his mother (Deborah Wastell) to leave the city. She insists on staying with him and hoards her bread ration, so he can survive.
Daniel Wallington’s playing was mesmeric and carried the show. But I felt sorry for the others because the stories they were expected to share were far too horrific and complex to be fitted around (and sometimes over) the music. I came away feeling that (together with the music) projected silent images of the bombed city and the besieged people, perhaps overlaid with a rolling text would have been a more effective medium.
But to be so close to the war illustrating piano that it almost hurt, was a privilege. And the whole production only cost a a tenner, it was well worth this meagre remuneration. The production is based on Sarah Quigley’s novel of the same name and adapted by Mark Wallington and Jared McNeill (Peter Brook’s international company) for the stage.