It’s 1958, the Cold-War has been raging for a good ten years and Stalin – though dead for five of them – still seems to be ruling from the grave. New Soviet Leader Nikita Khrushchev’s exposure of his predecessor’s crimes – the mass executions, the Gulags, the show trials and organised Terror – have ushered in a process of partial liberalisation, but still, no one is sure where the boundaries lie or how safe they are to let their guard down. Russia remains Churchill’s ‘riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma’, a country terrifying and unknowable, where ‘unhappiness is happiness and torture is normal’. A state of mutual suspicion – as well as bafflement – exists between East and West: to the latter the Russians are ‘different. They live on ideas and have a soul’ – a spiritual and military superpower deserving of awe, to be trusted at one’s peril. To the Russians, the English are ‘an old chronic complaint – tiresome, annoying.’ When Oxford University awards an honorary doctorate to the Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich and requests that he attend the ceremony, the stage is set for a clash between England at its most English – a world of dusty, portentous tradition where protocol is vital though the stakes for breaking it are low – and Russia at its most Soviet: where the price for errors of discretion or judgement doesn’t bear imagining.
This is the setting for Lewis Owens’ debut play Like a Chemist from Canada: Shostakovich, Isaiah Berlin and Oxford (directed by Victor Sobchak) which shows us the maddening preparations for the composer’s visit, the behind-the-scenes intrigue, the incongruity of Shostakovich – a man who lived under the shadow of the axe for much of his adult life and lost many close friends to the Terror – surfacing in an Oxford drawing room. We see the British inability to fathom either Soviet life or the extent of Shostakovich’s suffering, the brutality of a British news-editor needling him with questions to which honest answers might have earned him imprisonment, exile or worse. There are comic moments as the university administration tangles with KGB thugs and a jungle of Soviet red tape, and dramatic ones as Shostakovich’s music articulates – shockingly, majestically – the torment he’s barely lived through.
How does one portray Shostakovich? Owens’s masterstroke is to keep him silent throughout – dressed in mourning black, marooned in melancholy, dealing with his hosts only through an interpreter to whom he whispers inaudibly through a cloud of Russian cigarette smoke: a riddle and enigma himself. All this is helped by Lucien Morgan, whose mute performance is superb: wounded, sinister, almost catatonic with sadness, with a face that expresses fear, disdain and – when his music is played – a kind of passionate peace.
Other performances are striking too – notably Patrick Harrimond, enjoyably supercilious as the Registry fixer David Hawke, and Andrew Conway whose portrayal of an Embassy heavy is both menacing and believable, getting the differences of Soviet body language and giving us a Russian accent for once admirably authentic. Only Ian Macnaughton seems cruelly miscast, playing the legendary historian and philosopher Isaiah Berlin, Shostakovich’s Oxford host, with a charmless and dry-as-dust irascibility – when what’s called for are gravitas and charisma. Berlin was described as ‘one of the most spellbinding, compelling talkers of his time’, a character so erudite and magnetic he left the great Soviet poet Anna Akhmatova near-obsessed with him after one night’s conversation. We don’t get that character here, or anything like it – nor do we get an actor who speaks Russian like a native, which Berlin, brought up in Riga and St.Petersburg, was.
The play – clearly thoroughly researched – is tantalising at times, a mixture of strong and weak in equal measure. Exposition – necessarily quite a lot of it – is skilfully, even smoothly handled, and it’s to Owens’ credit that he assumes his audience needs to know the basic facts. The playwright when he hits his stride is illuminating and witty: lines describing Shostakovich as ‘dull as a Bodleian librarian and blind as a bat’, and one character’s complaint about the composer’s incessant smoking – ‘At least your pipe has European tobacco and some type of aroma. I feel we’re in a Soviet crematorium’ – stick in the mind, and give some hint of what the play might become. Equally, Berlin’s haunted diagnosis of Shostakovich’s situation – crushed and frightened but with a genius deepened, if limited, by censorship – intrigues with its insight.
Yet still, the play fails at certain key moments to ignite. You wish the ensemble scenes would crackle more, would have more energy and momentum; the administrative wrangles over Shostakovich’s visit seem unnecessarily slow in pace; you’re left wanting more about Berlin and his historian colleague Hugh Trevor Roper, and to see their foibles in action rather than having them merely described. Both characters were, in real life, arguably as interesting and complex as the composer himself, and are sold slightly short here – indeed, by sketching them so lightly Owens deprives us of the sense of real climax that a clash between these Titans – fully fleshed out – might have given us.
In a recent interview Owens remarked that he felt, in writing the play, ‘all of the personalities involved could be explored, developed further and essentially brought back to life.’ Like a Chemist from Canada, as it stands at the moment, doesn’t go quite far enough in this direction – there’s still room for that further development. One hopes Owens will undertake it, for this has the makings of a compelling and timely drama – one whose material is at least as interesting as Alan Bennett’s An Englishman Abroad, and which, when properly cooked up, should be served to a wider public.
Lewis Owens’s Like a Chemist from Canada – Shostakovich, Isaiah Berlin and Oxford was staged at Sadler’s Wells on June 13th and at the Royal College of Music on June 14th, 2015. It will also be presented on Friday July 3rd at the Sheldonian Theatre, Broad St., Oxford.