Concert, DVD, Film & Theatre Reviews 43

043_chemistLike a Chemist from Canada
Shostakovich, Isaiah Berlin, and Oxford
Dukes Hall, Royal Academy of Music, London, 14 June 2015

When, in 1958, Oxford University decided to award Shostakovich an Honorary Doctorate, it proved as delicate a matter as might be imagined. Though it was five years after Stalin’s death and the start of Khrushchev’s Thaw, it was also less than a year after the Soviet invasion of Hungary, which had undermined international good will and shaken many Western leftists’ confidence in the new regime.

If this wasn’t enough, there were internal machinations at the University. Some, such as Registrar Sir Douglas Veale, wondered at the wisdom of giving the award to a Soviet citizen and tired of the international politicking. The University would not make an announcement until everyone had accepted, but Shostakovich took it as notification of an election and didn’t want to come unless the award was guaranteed, leading to a sort of academic French farce. The Russian Embassy was at best unhelpful—in the play, two apparachiks (Andrew Conway and Conor Craig-Stephens) play cards while dealing with enquiries noncommittally. There were fears that the economist and All Souls fellow-turned-Sunday-Times-editor Harry Hodson (Colin Uttley) would create a scene, as indeed he does, by turning everything, even the recent space-flight by Laika the dog, into a metaphor for Shostakovich’s suffering under the regime. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, Prime Minister and fellow honouree Harold Macmillan was angling for the Chancellorship with enthusiastic support from Professor Hugh Trevor-Roper.

Throughout the play, Isaiah Berlin warily eyes international events. Despite his Russian-Jewish heritage and extensive work on Russian culture, Berlin was far from a Soviet stooge and was unafraid to let people know that. Yet after supporting Akhmatova and helping Pasternak get Dr Zhivago published, he was concerned that his association might reflect badly on Shostakovich back in the USSR. A year into his term as All Souls College’s second Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory, he was also developing one of his major works of political philosophy: Two Concepts of Liberty, which he would deliver as his inaugural lecture just four months after the ceremony.

This is the background against which Lewis Owens has set his play Like a Chemist from Canada. It grew from research that he carried out several years ago and published in this DSCH Journal, and takes its title from Berlin’s unusual (and inscrutable) description of the composer as he emerged from his car.

Though its three continuous acts total only 75 minutes, it’s an ambitious work, with a cast of sixteen, plus four musical performers, and of course it has to portray real, albeit dead, people and historical events. And that is one of its strengths: there’s a sense of authenticity as the words on stage are often at least very close to those actually spoken or written at the time. Yet at the same time, there’s no feeling of it being a worthy “re-enactment”: we see and hear real people behaving spontaneously. One of the central moments is a clash between Berlin, Hodson, and Roper about the Cold War and philosophical and practical responses to it.

The centre of the action is a soiree attended by everyone, including Shostakovich and Poulenc, who was also receiving an honorary degree, and this gives an opportunity for musical performances. One of the Frenchman’s Banalités is followed by Shostakovich’s somewhat sturdier hit The Motherland Knows, the Motherland Hears.

Shostakovich was famously reserved, and Owens cunningly uses this to his advantage, both practically and symbolically. The composer does not speak; his brief comments are conveyed through his interpreter (Ruth Sillers) and are usually fairly anodyne, though when Hodson brings up the topic of Hungary, he gives as good as he gets, comparing the invasion with the contemporary British embarrassment of Suez. It is only when he is invited to play the piano that he really “speaks.” Through the play, time’s passing is marked by fragments of op. 87, no. 24, so that his performance seems to bring together those fragments into a paradoxically timeless moment. In fact, it elicited various memories from people who were present in 1958, some thinking it overwhelming while others were struck by Shostakovich’s stumbles. Here, Colin Stone “voices” Shostakovich (sans stumbles!) while actor Lucien Morgan visibly comes alive, moving around the stage much more lightly than otherwise—indeed, though we are spared any embarrassing “air piano” playing, this fantasy moment could almost have gone further.

There is, as the preamble to this review points out, a lot of background that will be familiar to Shostakovichians and Sovietologists, but is necessary to innocents in such matters. So, we learn of the composer’s sufferings, the Thaw, etc., courtesy of David Hawke (played by Patrick Farrimond)—a member of the Registry staff who prides himself on his insights into the Soviet Union. It does make for a few minutes where we are bombarded with facts, but spreading the information through the rest of the play would have been difficult: this way, it gets the facts sorted out early, before moving on to the play’s more “philosophical” aspects and its portrayal of the characters. And Owens manages to inject some humour to avoid it being too lecture-like. Hawkes comes over as over-confident, but his “audience,” the secretary Miss Watson, clearly knows more than he expects or she lets on, and there are a few moments where his pomposity is pricked. And later, we see a different side to Hawke as he visits the Russian embassy and, away from his home turf, is far less bumptious. There are a few such humorous moments, a prescient comment about Hugh Trevor Roper’s inability to spot a fake—in 1983 his career suffered a set-back when he authenticated the forged Hitler diaries—and some more serious ones, including a contemplation as to whether, fifty years after the events portrayed, Russia might consider invading another country.

The portrayals are all convincing, with particular stand-outs from Nick Simons as the sardonic and world-weary Douglas Veale and Ian MacNaughton as Berlin, giving the impression of wrestling with both international and personal conflicts: the play ends with his writing a letter to Rowland Burden-Muller, resolving a difference between them, but also encapsulating many of the issues raised by Like a Chemist from Canada.

The RAM performance was followed by a recital: Colin Stone and Leonid Gorokhov playing the cello sonatas of Oxford honourees Shostakovich and Poulenc. They brought an appropriately noble performance to the latter, one of the Frenchman’s more serious works (counterpointing the Banalités’, well, banality), while there was a lightness to Shostakovich’s sonata, particularly in the finale where the tempi were teased just enough to underline the humour without it becoming a tiresome affectation.

Hopefully these won’t be the last performances of what might have seemed like an interesting experiment, but which became a compelling philosophical and personal drama.

043_chemist_playersCast & musicians at The Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford, 3 July 2015 (photo: Egbert Baars)


John Riley