Conversations about the theatre are often short and sweet. “I’m going to see a play tonight,” someone will say. “Oh,” will come the reply, “what’s it about?” Information received, the conversation will move on.
Opening at Northern Stage this week is something called Opus No. 7 which defies such fleeting exchanges.
The theatre website tells us it’s a double bill dealing first with the oppression of Soviet Jews and then the censorship of the composer Shostakovich under Stalin.
The action is defined as “genre-defying”. The themes will be expressed “through larger-than-life puppets, duelling pianos, living walls and blizzards of newsprint...”
It is the work of Dmitry Krymov who is described as one of Russia’s most influential theatre directors and the creator of “visually majestic, moving yet witty experiences”.
Lorne Campbell, artistic director of Northern Stage, describes Krymov as “a magnificent artist”.
Last year he and a few other British theatre directors and promoters went to the Golden Mask Festival of theatre in Moscow at the invitation of the British Council.
There they got the full Krymov experience, visiting his ‘laboratory’ where he has a theatre and a drama school and also attending a performance of a piece about the electrification of Russia.
“It doesn’t sound like a terribly riveting subject for three-and-a-half hours of theatre in Russian with no translation,” says Lorne, quite rightly.
“But it was one of the most remarkable experiences I’ve ever had in the theatre – and I have seen quite a lot.”
It seems the language was not a barrier. Lorne describes a series of theatrical surprises, the performance beginning with a scene that was repeated twice but each time with a growing degree of absurdity.
Two thirds of the way through the third scene, a stage hand came and ripped away the walls around the human characters to reveal a First World War landscape populated by giant puppets dressed as soldiers.
“Twenty minutes into this scene we realised one of the puppets was not a puppet but a woman pretending to be a puppet,” recalls Lorne.
The climax of the performance came on a vast stage with “an army of Olympic mascots and Bart Simpsons charging across no-man’s land towards the audience”.
All of them to be mown down by machine gun fire.
“The whole piece was about the tension between small and large, between a domestic context and a huge project in a vast country.”
So impressed were Lorne and some of his fellow Moscow visitors that they have brought Opus No. 7 to Britain for a small and exlusive tour.
To accommodate it at Northern Stage, both Stage 1 and Stage 2 are being opened up to create one huge space for audiences of just 300.
“I’m very wary of rhetoric in marketing,” says Lorne, “but I can say with complete confidence you’ll never have seen anything like this before. It will live in the memory.”
It runs from Thursday to Saturday. Box office: 0191 2305151