The tragedy of World War II is remembered in many ways, but The Conductor, at The Space, takes a highly focussed look at just one small event in Russia’s window on the west in 1941 when Peter the Great’s city was under a siege that was to last 900 days and claim over half a million lives.
Devoid of crescendos and contrasting diminuendos.
In the preceding years Dmitri Shostakovich had been working in his home city on what would become the 7th symphony, commonly known as the Leningrad. He was evacuated from the city before the siege began and it is a matter of dispute as to whether the work relates directly to the event or whether it was a more general tribute to the people’s resistance to invading forces. The work requires a huge orchestra, but when it was premiered in his home city only fourteen members of the Radio Orchestra remained. Conductor Karl Eliasberg had to scour the neighbourhoods in search of anyone who could play an instrument.
Joe Skelton plays Eliasberg and provides a narrative on the period as well as insights into the suffering of the people through exchanges with his mother (Deborah Wastell), mostly on the subject of food and the unending hunt for bread. He also portrays the often fraught and envious relationship between Eliasberg and Shostakovich (Danny Wallington).
Wallington has very little to say and for the most part remains seated at the grand piano playing passages from the symphony. These interludes are the highlight of the production. He is clearly an accomplished pianist and masters the piano reduction of some momentous passages with ease. Impressively, in the invasion theme he plays with his left hand while his right hand taps out the haunting march on the snare drum.
The spartan set of just a couple of chairs and a music stand combined with the chilly air of the theatre conveys the austerity of the period, but Wallington aside, the enormity of the symphony is not matched by the scale of the performances. In addition to the mother, Wastell takes on several other roles yet there is little to mark them out as distinctive individuals. Whether as Shostakovich’s wife or a local official, all seem to be subdued characters. Similarly, with the exception of an outburst towards the end, Skelton sustains a largely hushed, monotone performance and often loses the ends of sentences.
The play’s running time corresponds roughly to that of the symphony, but if director Jared McNeill’s production were a piece of music it would probably be marked ‘lento non appassionato’. Devoid of crescendos and contrasting diminuendos or a range of tempos, it is a listless piece that sustains interest thanks only to the sounds of Shostakovich.