Review: Pictures from an Exhibition at Sadler's Wells

Performance: 23 & 24 April 2010
Reviewed by Graham Watts - Monday 26 April 2010

Pictures from an Exhibition, 23-24 April 2010, Sadler's Wells. Photo: Alastair Muir

Reviewed: 23 April 2010

This hour-long dance drama about the life of the Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky, has been tightened considerably since it was premiered a little under a year ago at the Young Vic. Although only around 17 minutes have been shaved from its content, Pictures from an Exhibition now seems altogether a slicker and more holistic work. Scenes of Mussorgsky’s life are interspersed with visual references to the eleven pictures at the Exhibition, which provided the impetus for his most famous composition.

Mussorgsky was a sporadic and careless composer who died of alcoholism at the age of just 42. Few of his works were published while he was alive and many were lost forever, simply because Mussorgsky didn’t commit them to paper. In complete contrast, his grief at the death of his close friend Victor Hartmann, triggered by visiting a memorial Exhibition of Hartmann’s paintings, led to an outpouring of frantic composing which created – within a month – one of the greatest showpieces of virtuoso pianism ever written.

This production fuses theatre (directed by Daniel Kramer) and dance (choreography led by Frauke Requardt) with a mixed score of both the orchestrated (recorded) and piano (live) arrangements of ‘Pictures’ and an outstanding set design by Richard Hudson. The outcome of all this collaboration is an extraordinary event, which I appreciated much more from a closer understanding of Mussorgsky and the background to each Picture in the Exhibition. Little is known of whole chunks of Mussorgsky’s life (much of which was probably spent in an alcoholic haze) but the seeds for his unhappiness were sown in a childhood dominated by a cruel nurse (Kath Duggan) and her nightmarish stories of the “bogey-woman” (cross-referenced to Hartmann’s picture of the strange chicken-legged hut for the witch, Baba Yaga); an uncaring mother (Michela Meazza); and obsessive worries about a deformed penis. The play (for it is essentially a theatrical work) focuses strongly on the ongoing loss of people in Mussorgsky’s life: signified in the set being dominated by a huge empty portrait painting and an even larger door; by his friends all declaring one after the other, at the meal table, that they are leaving him; and by the sudden death, in his arms, of Hartmann (who died from an aneurism).

The impact of Mother Russia on Mussorgsky’s life also takes many forms, including the liberal availability of vodka (from an onstage dispensing machine); his youth in the Cadet School of the Preobrashensky Guards (where the heavy drinking began); and, most telling of all, the two dancing Russian bears – one of whom mock-urinates copiously from a vodka bottle into Mussorgsky’s mouth – indicating in a single image the impact of Russianness on his self-destructive nature. Hartmann’s pictures – and Mussorgsky’s musical representation of them – are depicted in many forms, most directly in the duet for the ballet of the unhatched chicks, and in the magnificent dance to the final rousing, climactic themes of the Great Gate of Kiev.

To help fill the much larger space of the Sadler’s Wells stage, five performers have been added to the Young Vic ensemble, raising it from 9 to 14, and Requardt clearly relished this extra resource with two outstanding group dances at either end of the work – one playful, gentle, twirling and harmonious; the other big, solid (like the great gate itself) with dancers moving strongly and in unison, occasionally leaping out of the group dynamic like the Slavonic, pointed, horned helmet of Hartmann’s magnificent, but unbuilt, architectural designs for the Kiev City Gate. The whole ensemble of dancers, actors and the pianist (Carl Joseph) gelled seamlessly throughout the work with Chris New joining the team, with a very effective portrayal of Mussorgsky. Meazza, Duggan and Viniciuis Salles were especially impressive as lead dancers effortlessly handling the delivery of spoken text.

Mussorgsky was continually haunted by personal insecurities, a lack of self-esteem, the loss of close friends throughout his life and other dark secrets and he drank himself to death; this is not the stuff of happiness and although there is light and dark in ‘Pictures’, it ultimately reflects the sorry, bleak existence of its subject in an intellectually stimulating work that has been carved, through this revision, into an intensely fascinating theatrical experience.

Sadly, having been much improved and then revived for just two days at Sadler’s Wells in this spring season, it seems to have no certainty of any future life and I hope to see it revived again.

“Read reviews of Pictures from an Exhibition at The Young Vic last year”:

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