Reviewed – 28th March 2019
“achieves a sensitivity and drama which fills the theatre and rouses our emotions”
In the besieged city of Leningrad in 1941, a conductor, against all odds, gathers together an orchestra of starving and weakened musicians to give a momentous performance of Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony. Even though he is said to have planned the work as a general comment on terror, slavery and oppression, its timing means that it is remembered as a force of psychological warfare against Nazi despotism by the battered spirits of a tyrannised society. In an elegant adaptation by Mark Wallington and Jared McNeill, based on Sarah Quigley’s novel, ‘The Conductor’ tells the story of the ‘Leningrad Symphony’ and how the devastating circumstances of World War II gave Karl Eliasberg the opportunity to rise from the shadows of mediocre musical standing and conduct the first performance there. With dramatic and evocative musical illustration, it shows the power of artistic expression fighting to overcome the surrounding atrocities. Who knows why these men in such dire physical state agreed to sacrifice their health and, in a few cases, lives for that concert? Possibly the extra rations offered to them but, more likely, to restore a sense of dignity in their souls and those of their fellow citizens.
Occupying half the stage, the composer sits at his grand piano, engrossed in composition as Eliasberg describes his own modest upbringing and aspirations and his admiration for Shostakovich’s genius. Joseph Skelton plays a conductor who wins our sympathy with his quiet, unassuming nature; describing himself as ‘cold’ and ‘good at keeping time’, he displays acceptance rather than bitterness. Deborah Wastell, with dexterous change of accent creates a handful of peripheral characters, adding detail to daily life – the mother who refuses to be evacuated, Shostakovich’s long-suffering wife, the dancer who befriends Eliasberg. And while we build an image of the hardships through Eliasberg and the people around him, Shostakovich appears detached from reality, absorbed in his own world. Daniel Wallington portrays this remoteness while evoking the moods of war, reminiscence and victory with his extraordinarily passionate piano playing.
‘The Conductor’ is a unique piece of theatre. It cleverly infuses the music into the narrative and completes the background picture with perceptive minor roles. Jared McNeill’s direction captures the contrast between the musicians and the trepidation in the atmosphere but as the action evolves (notably after the intense musical episodes) Eliasberg’s thoughtful pauses break the flow and the tension relaxes rather than heightens towards his ‘glory of fame and grief of loss’. While the piano is unable to recreate the textures and colours of a large orchestra, in this case it fits perfectly into context and Wallington achieves a sensitivity and drama which fills the theatre and rouses our emotions.
Reviewed by Joanna Hetherington
The Space until 13th April
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