Three Plays: Opus No. 7, Family Happiness, and The Suit

An image from Dmitry Krymov's "Shostakovich." The actress is Anna Sinyakina.
An image from Dmitry Krymov’s “Shostakovich.” The actress is Anna Sinyakina.

I’ve been feeling the itch to see more theatre. Perhaps it’s because dance and theatre have begun to overlap in so many ways. Half the time, at dance performances, the actual dance feels like an afterthought. Many choreographers no longer seem to entirely trust movement, or to want to say the kinds of things that can be said through movement. The function of the choreographer has become more like that of a director, channeling ideas through his or her performers. Dancers are called upon to speak, sing, improvise movement and text. The trend transcends geography. Think of William Forsythe, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, the late Pina Bausch, Bill T Jones, Ralph Lemon, Big Dance Theatre. Not to speak of the multitude of experimental choreographers working on the downtown scene. So I’ve been intrigued to see what’s happening on the other side.

 In the past two weeks, I’ve gone to three plays in New York, Dmitry Krymov’s Opus No. 7 (at St. Ann’s Warehouse), Peter Brook’s adaptation of Can Themba’s The Suit (at the Brooklyn Academy of Music), and Piotr Fomenko’s staging of Tolstoy’s novella Family Happiness (at the Baryshnikov Arts Center). It may be a case of beginner’s luck, but all three were excellent productions, in radically contrasting styles. Krymov’s Opus was a highly choreographed, very physical exploration of history and memory. The actors created the set with their own hands. They built their own onstage world, with hammers and saws and the harmony of their voices. The second half of the program, Shostakovich, was especially powerful. In it, Krymov (who wrote, designed, and directed) depicted the great Russian composer as a kind of tragic clown, a whimpering, simpering tool of the Soviet state. The subject was the struggle to create legitimate art, and even to survive, in a state that does not allow the freedom to think. Engulfed in a giant coat and quaking at the feet of a giant puppet—mother Russia—the composer took on a grotesque aspect. His seventh symphony became a ballet for metal pianos, easily interpreted as military tanks. The tanks used to defend Mother Russia, but also to crush rebellions in Hungary and Czechoslovakia. I don’t altogether agree with this interpretation of the composer’s role in Russia’s twentieth century saga, but as portrayed by Anna Sinyakina (Shostakovich) and the rest of this remarkable cast, the portrait was devastating. One could feel the weight of history hovering over the audience. What was most affecting was the way Krymov grappled with his own past and with the identity of the artist, taking on his subject with an unsparing lucidity, though not without a lick of humor. A deathly kind of humor. There was very little text other than Shostakovich’s own recorded voice, spouting the inanities he was forced to proclaim as a kind of penance for writing ideologically suspect music. Fomenko called the two plays “one-act ballets.”

Nonhlanhla Kheswa in "The Suit." Photo by Richard Termine.
Nonhlanhla Kheswa in “The Suit.” Photo by Richard Termine.

Music played an important role in all three productions; all of the actors sang, and I was struck by the naturalness with which they did so, a universe away from the forced, almost aggressive singing in shows like Les Misérables or A Chorus Line. The human voice and its ability to communicate emotion, to tell stories and fill in details about a life… In The Suit, especially, songs opened a window to the realm of the senses, to pleasure, and revealed surprising new sides of the characters. The play, adapted by Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne from a story by the South African writer Can Themba (who drank himself to death at the age of forty-three in 1967), is set in a suburb of Johannesburg, Sophiatown (a real place, later re-zoned for whites by the Apartheid government). It’s the story of a middle-class black woman (Tilly) who cheats on her doting husband (Philomen), and is punished by him by being forced to treat her lover’s forgotten suit as if it were honored guest in their house, and even in public. It is not until Tilly (played by Nonhlanhla Kheswa) sings her first song that she begins to come alive. Why should we care about this woman? Why does she betray a husband who treats her with such gentleness, and even brings her breakfast in bed? The answer is revealed, very simply, through her singing. Tilly is not just a victim, not only a beautiful woman and an adulteress. When Kheswa sings, Tilly becomes someone. In a way, it is her husband who wrongs her by not realizing what she is: a singer, someone who gives and receives love through her singing.

Ksenia Kutepova as Masha and Alexey Kolubkov as Sergey Mikhailovich in “Family Happiness.” Photo by Jennifer Taylor.

Similarly, in Family Happiness, a delicate thread of music leads through the play’s themes. Masha, Tolstoy’s protagonist, is seen in her youth, then as an erratic married woman, and finally as a mature woman reflecting on her past. In all these stages of life, she is played by the immensely appealing Ksenia Kutepova, a fine-boned redhead with expressive eyes, pale skin, and pre-Raphaelite lips. Masha’s thoughts are accompanied by gently nostalgic piano melodies by Chopin and Beethoven (a sentimental touch). She ponders her life at a little table, listening to the music, plucking its final notes out of the air with her fingers. Music has a physical presence as well; two pianos dominate the intimate set, which contains little else: a few chairs, a table, some curtains and a suitcase Masha is eternally leaping over in her excitement. (One of the innovations developed by Fomenko, who died last year, was the rejection of Soviet theatre’s grand scale and his focus on the intimate, the simple, the everyday.)

For all her enthusiasm and innocent appeal, Masha’s main flaw is her superficiality, and it find its expression, among other things, in her inability to play the piano. She tinkles a few notes, but soon loses interest; for all her charm and enthusiasm, she has no real understanding of music, of life. The young Masha, depicted breathlessly by Kutepova as a kind of tourbillon of continuous motion and copious eye-rolls, grows into a still-charming but perilously erratic woman. The mere sound of the words St. Petersburg—let alone the thought of leaving her country life for that of the city—sends her into paroxysms of delight. She repeats “Pe-ters-burg….”, savoring each syllable with a half-whisper, half song, eyes filling with desire. Once there, she discovers the pleasures of dancing; laconic piano-playing is replaced by antic polkas that set her heart all aflutter. She forgets about her husband and her child, waiting back home. When her husband (the very solid Alexey Kolubkov) realizes what has happened to his once-sweet wife, he tries to lure her back to the country. “Why should I sacrifice my pleasure?”  Masha cries out in almost physical pain.

Masha’s near-disgrace is captured in a scene in which she sings a silly ballad, accompanied on the piano by two languid admirers. Here, the tone shifts from lyrical realism to a gentle satire. The foreign seducers, one of whom wears a preposterous curly wig, strike indolent poses, caress the piano, stare moonily at their prey (while saying awful things behind her back, in French). Masha’s voce is tremulous and child-like; she is not a woman of the world, just pretending to be one. Even so, her simple charm, Kutepova makes clear, has not quite faded. She replaces every high note she can’t quite reach with a little shrug of the shoulders and wave of the hand. She’s both complicit and profoundly innocent. After a failed seduction, she returns home to her husband, bruised by life, chastened. It’s a profoundly male vision of experience; the husband represents a kind of disappointed wisdom, an understanding of life’s important issues. Masha, who is kept from useful work, has only two options to choose from: motherhood and wifely devotion on the one hand, dissolution on the other. (The nanny, Katya, is more a collection of sound-effects than a human being. Galina Tunina plays her with a vast repertory of nods and tsks and sighs. Her performance is small masterpiece of mime.)

In this early novella, Tolstoy had not yet achieved the deeper understanding of human nature that would come later, in works like Anna Karenina. This one-sidedness weakens the play; in the end, one can’t help but think that it is just the story of a silly woman. Nevertheless, Kutepova’s performance is extraordinarily graceful, and touching.

Rikki Henry, Jared McNeill, and William Nadylam in "The Suit." Photo by Richard Termine.
Rikki Henry, Jared McNeill, and William Nadylam in “The Suit.” Photo by Richard Termine.

Music plays a more salutary role in Thema’s The Suit. For Tilly, music is the key to opening a secret passageway to freedom and happiness. Through it, Tilly transcends her own humiliation. As Kheswa sings a song by Miriam Makeba, the play’s three men (Jared McNeill, William Nadylam, and Rikki Henry, all excellent), begin to dance behind her. All worries melt away, at least temporarily. Tilly has found her passion. Her husband Philomen (William Nadylam) momentarily forgets his anger and humiliation. Time stops. Peter Brook holds out this pleasure to the audience like a gift. He even allows the audience to taste it from up close; during a party scene, the actors invite people to join them onstage. It is the first successful example of audience participation I have witnessed. The outsiders are welcomed, made to feel completely at home, part of the family.

The sense of community is a canny distraction from the darker themes of the play. Jared McNeill, in the role of neighborhood storyteller, fills in some of the sinister details, without piling on the pathos. One of the show’s most appealing aspects is its light touch. But the facts are not so light: we learn that Sophiatown, this peaceful oasis of multi-racial neighborliness, will soon be emptied of its black and “colored” inhabitants. We are given a foretaste of the violence to come as he tells the story of a local musician who is arrested, mutilated, killed, and left in the streets like a piece of trash. Does the joy of the onstage music-making soften the blow?  A little. One can sense Peter Brook’s enchantment with his cast, with the charm of their singing and dancing, with the beauty of Miriam Makeba’s songs: “There is something deep and special that comes form this vast unknown which is called Africa,” Brook told Pia Catton in the Wall Street Journal. It’s a very European point of view, a slightly uncomfortable one if one thinks about it too much. But it’s hard not to give in to the pleasure of such good acting, and of people making music together.

Anna Karenina in the Round; Joe Wright’s new film.

Keira Knightley in Joe Wright’s new “Anna Karenina,” out on Nov. 16

It seems that the trope of the play within the play is here to stay—after percolating through intellectual discourse for decades, the post-modern frame has inevitably trickled down to the performing arts. You can’t tell a story anymore without fiddling with the narrative, inserting commentary or turning the whole thing into a dress rehearsal for the actual performance. Even popular forms—like Broadway superhero musicals—have fallen prey to the cleverness of the conceit. Contemporary opera productions cannot resist framing and re-framing the travails of their characters, winking at the audience as if to remind us, “all the world’s a stage!”

It’s a tiresome trend, or rather, it feels clever and striking the first few times you see it and then grows quickly stale, because, in the end you begin to suspect it doesn’t really add much to your understanding. It’s an intensely solipsistic approach, in which the means are more interesting than the underlying intentions. (Though in the right hands, like anything, it can offer a refreshing point of view. Sofia Coppola’s pop Marie Antoinette is a case in point.)

Anna (Knightley) and Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson)

Now, Tolstoy’s great novel Anna Karenina has been given the post-modern treatment by the British film-maker Joe Wright, the man who brought us Ian McEwan’s Atonement. His new film, which will come out in the US on Nov. 16, is elaborate and lavish in every way: huge cast, neverending (but quite good) music by Dario Marianelli, complex choreographed movement, infinitely detailed sets, ravishing clothes and jewelry (especially the jewelry) by Jacqueline Durran. The cast is peppered with stars, from Keira Knightley (mis-cast, in my opionion) as Anna to Jude Law as Karenin (excellent), Kelly McDonald as Dolly (lovely), and Downton Abbey’s Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary) as Anna’s friend Princess Myagkaya. The idea behind the film seems to be that the character’s world is like a lavish but peeling theatre, in which they are players. Images of the proscenium are woven into almost every scene.  Ballrooms and skating rinks appear enclosed; the characters wander in and out of a theatre’s wings, amid ropes and ladders; Anna’s son sleeps in what looks like a puppet theatre; interior and exterior walls morph into each other. We never quite know whether we floating in the illusion of reality or whether we are meant to marvel at the clever manipulation of this illusion.

Add to this the highly choreographed direction. Alicia Vikander, as Kitty, glides into her first ball like a ballerina-in-training—she is very lovely—with her arms held just so. Clerks stamp their paperwork in time with the music, then rise up an remove their jackets to become waiters at a fancy restaurant, whistling along in time. The extras—especially in the first half of the movie—move like a corps of dancers, and in fact, many of them are. Joe Wright brought in the well-known contemporary Belgian choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui to shape much of the group movement and even some of the intimate scenes, not just the ballroom sequence. (At the opening ball, the waltzes are gussied up with busy arm movements that simultaneously call attention to themselves and reveal Knightley’s relative lack of grace.) Even the scene in which Levin, the idealistic landowner who acts as Tolstoy’s stand-in (played by the slightly shellshocked Domhnall Gleeson) finally wins over Kitty’s affections is played out in a kind of intricate hand ballet at a game table covered with lettered blocks.

Jude Law is Karenin—here he stands in a St. Petersburg street/theatre

It’s all ably accomplished, mind you, with great skill and art, but the artifice grows increasingly grating, and it’s no wonder that by the end, as the love story begins to unravel, Wright opts for a more naturalistic mode. But the main problem is that this kind of approach doesn’t really suit the material; Tolstoy’s novel is too limpid, too three-dimensional and multi-layered for this approach, and too earnest. Instead, the film’s artfulness constantly pushes one away and dazzles with its surface. Casting is also a problem. Knightley, though of course very attractive, is too thin, too jumpy, and lacks the calm, glowing loveliness and warmth that Tolstoy constantly refers to in his novel: Anna’s “dazzling beauty,” her “proud head,” her “brilliant eyes,” but also her spirituality and love of books. Knightley plays her as a bit of a hysteric, an excitable woman who immediately falls for Vronksy, staring at him like a hungry little girl in a Viennese pastry shop. Michelle Dockery (Downton’s Mary) with her proud, swan neck and placid face—behind which lurk god knows what thoughts!—is much closer to the mark. And Vronsky! He is played by the very handsome Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who, with his golden curls, looks in turn like a Prada model or like Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince. In short it’s hard to believe someone so pretty could have any feelings at all. Two other actors in the cast would have fit the bill much better: Jude Law and Raphael Personnaz, the latter of whom plays Vronsky’s brother. Law has the intensity (don’t forget Oblonsy describes Vronsky as “a cultured man, too, and very intelligent…a man who’ll make his mark”). Personnaz has the dark, sensitive good looks. As it is, Law’s Karenin, a conventional  but fundamentally decent man tormented by love, duty, and loss, steals the show, as does the magnetic Matthew Mcfadyen as Anna’s jolly, bonvivant brother.

For all its limitations, the film is not a waste of time, though. The screenplay, by Tom Stoppard, is tight, the designs elegant, and at least it has a point of view, unlike so many over-padded, hyped-up costume dramas. If it disappoints, it does so with honor. It’s not one for the ages, but that’s all right. After all, we still have the book.