Simon McBurney has titled his theatrical meditation on Dmitri Shostakovich “The Noise of Time,” but he might also have called it “The Power of Darkness.” McBurney has a breathtaking ability to sculpt resonant imagery from a landscape of shadows, using the simplest of means to achieve extraordinary effects. This aesthetic is particularly apt here, as the director and his collaborators from the Theatre de Complicite troupe shine their glimmering brilliance on Shostakovich’s last string quartet, a piece of music that is itself a sort of dialogue with darkness, a glimpse into the chilliest recesses of the soul written by a composer in emotional eclipse.
The first half of the 90-minute performance is a series of audiovisual tableaux that comment on the life and times of Shostakovich, who spent his entire career working under the sometimes cosseting, sometimes condemning Soviet regime. The second half is a performance of his “Quartet No. 15 in E-flat Minor” by the Emerson String Quartet, the eminent musicians who just completed acclaimed performances of all of the composer’s string quartet pieces in a separate series of concerts at Lincoln Center.
What’s perhaps most remarkable about the evening’s first half is the way McBurney’s theatrical effects evoke the composer’s presence — through photographs and taped reminiscences by and about him — even as they comment just as potently on his absence. On this paradoxical journey he is immeasurably aided by designer Joanna Parker, lighting designer Paul Anderson, Jan Hartley’s projections, and the soundscape of Christopher Shutt and Gareth Fry, as well as a quartet of agile actors.
“Mortal decay cannot touch me,” we hear Shostakovich saying at one point, and McBurney’s imagery comments on this truth and its various meanings in the context of the composer’s life. Death cannot touch him because art is eternal, of course, as we are powerfully reminded by the mournful beauty of the 15th string quartet, but also because the man lived a ghostly sort of life.
Who was he? The photographs displayed never give a strong visual impression of the man — they’re projected onto clothing, the face of a cello that eventually itself disintegrates, or the stage’s backdrop, a shingled wall of sheet music that blurs the images. In the most memorable photograph used, he’s hiding his face behind his hand. Although he provides plenty of specific, quirky biographical date, McBurney’s Shostakovich is elusive here, reflecting the ambiguities of his life: The composer was a dutiful servant of the Soviet regime and yet seems to have plainly reviled it. He was at once celebrated and forbidden, and put pen to vacuous declarations of party loyalty while composing music of a deeply personal, emotionally insular nature — we are reminded that he hid strange personal codes in his compositions.
McBurney’s blurry, blinking imagery reflects this watery history. Shostakovich is everywhere and nowhere, disappearing into his music the way McBurney’s images are swallowed by darkness — antique radios, held aloft and hand lit by the performers, blink into nothingness. The stage is often filled with empty chairs, and the four actors who perform in the first half often manipulate empty clothing — a hat, a pair of shoes, overcoats and dresses — to suggest ghostly presences.
Later these performers — Antonio Gil Martinez, Richard Katz, Tim McMullan, Toby Sedgwick — become otherworldly presences themselves, when the Emerson String Quartet takes to the stage to play. Each sits in respectful attention to one of the musicians, a ghost paying quiet homage to what lives on. Here the feeling of emptiness evoked by McBurney’s scattered theatrical landscape serves to stress the overwhelming emotional presence of the music — here at last is the man we’ve been looking for, powerfully alive even in this elegiac music, beautifully played despite the difficulties posed by the theatrical milieu.
There is much in McBurney’s audiovisual collage that is mystifying or extraneous, and prior knowledge of the basics of Shostakovich’s life would probably be useful. But obscurity is also intrinsic to its meaning and its effectiveness. It doesn’t attempt to explain away the contradictions of the composer’s life, but leaves them hanging in the air, echoing the rending, unresolved final notes of the string quartet, which resonate in the heart long after the musicians have left the stage.