Based on a Gogol short story, Shostakovich’s 1928 opera The Nose, tells the tale of a Russian official named Kovalyov whose nose leaves his face one night while he’s sleeping. The next day, he finds it transformed into a human-sized nose that not only has a higher bureaucratic rank than he, but refuses to speak to him. The balance of the action involves Kovalyov’s attempt, and final success, at getting his nose back.
Absurd in the extreme, The Nose can be interpreted as a castration allegory speaking to the impotence ordinary people experienced under the totalitarian systems of Tsar (Gogol) and Stalin (Shostakovich).
Shostakovich’s score draws from Russian folk music, vaudeville and military marches, which he intersperses with complex atonal passages. Not exactly the type of music you’d have on your iPod Shuffle. Coupled with the bizarre story, the work provides a challenge I’m not quite sure I could take if it were not for William Kentridge.
Kentridge’s production, which debuted in 2010, relies on an enormous screen onto which his wonderfully inventive drawings and animations are projected. These projections are the star of the show, both when they share the stage and during the four or five intervals when they have it all to themselves.
Collage-like, Kentridge’s projections use text from newspapers and encyclopedias as back drops onto which he projects another layer of images made up of material and film footage from Soviet archives paired with various images of the nose he has wrought, including a film fragment of Anna Pavlova dancing with the nose superimposed on her body. Kentridge’s approach is low-tech, using torn paper, drawing and stop action animation.
Objects and beings which seem solid at first, break apart and coalesce underscoring the theme of Kovalyov’s nose’s separation from his body. As is the case with his animations, Kentridge picks one color as a foil for all the black and white. This time it’s Suprematist red used to form Malevich crosses, circles andlines. He also uses great blocks of Cyrrilic lettering to dramatic visual effect.
There are ramps that cut across the backdrop along which the singers traverse, and box-like structures signifying rooms that can be moved across the stage. These are nonsensical spaces where a bed is way too small, a wardrobe is a withdrawing room and a picture on the wall, a ladder up to a hatch in the ceiling.
The costumes are a mix between ‘20s chic and middle European oddness, with what appeared to be a couple of lavender leisure suits thrown in with the Sonia Delaunay coats. I loved the randomness of it all and the fact that five, from a cast of about 60, inexplicably wore masks—wonderfully primitive masks, I might add.
The troop of soldiers was kitted out in nifty Soviet-style gray uniforms with hats that had red on the top, so that when they turned just so, they echoed the Malevich circles from the backdrop. The actual nose itself, a magnificent proboscis inspired by Kentridge’s own prodigious schnoz, appears only a few times, newsprint covered and with a red Malevich cross plastered onto it. A sprightly figure, the nose dances around sporting jaunty spats.
What with the music, the story and the crowd, at times it seemed that everything would deteriorate into pure chaos, but it didn’t. All this zaniness also didn’t seem self-indulgent or embarrassing, perhaps because everything was on such a high order and there was also this overall quality of handcrafted imperfection that rang with authenticity and truth.
As a South African who grew up under the shadow of apartheid, Kentridge is ideally suited to undertake “The Nose.” For Kentridge, it is through the type of brutal comedy evident in both Gogol’s story and Shostakovich’s music that we can get closer to the actual logic of the world, and he posits that apartheid, evil though it was, had an absurd logic to it. In addition to this societal form of absurdity, as an artist, Kentridge takes the absurd very seriously. Like Gogol and Shostakovich before him he sees the freedom inherent in it: because there are no rules, all bets are off and anything is possible.