Katya Kabanova

Theatre Royal, Glasgow

Four stars

At Festival Theatre, Edinburgh,

March 21-23

Plan B Double Bill

Tramway, Glasgow

Four stars

Touring until March 23

By Mark Brown

The great Czech composer Leos Janacek was a paradoxical figure. Although a traditionalist in many ways (a patriot and a champion of pan-Slavism), the atonality of many of his compositions places him in the pantheon of avant-garde, modernist composers alongside the likes of Arnold Schoenberg and Bela Bartok.

Janacek’s 1919 opera Katya Kabanova is, in a sense, an expression of this paradox. Based (in pan-Slavic style) upon the play The Storm by the famous Russian dramatist Alexander Ostrovsky, the opera is also inspired by Janacek’s love for Kamila Stosslova, who was both married and many years his junior.

In director Stephen Lawless’s new staging (a co-production by Scottish Opera and Theater Magdeburg of Germany) the tale of the pious and oppressed Katya Kabanova is relocated brilliantly to the Soviet Union in its crumbling final years. Here, Katya is caught between two misogynistic institutions (the Soviet state and the Russian Orthodox Church; either or both of which could be embodied by her viciously reactionary mother-in-law Marfa Kabanova).

Katya is neglected by her hapless husband Tikhon Kabanov, who is unable to break from his brutal mother (whose relationship with her son verges on an Oedipus Complex in reverse). Consequently, Katya falls in love, against her will, with Boris Grigoryevich, nephew of a local merchant.

The tragedy that ensues could be synopsised in a couple of short sentences, so ostensibly simple does it seem. Yet, as American soprano Laura Wilde proves, there is a terrible, psychological complexity to the piece. Singing Katya with a remarkable emotional depth and dexterity, she gives sharp expression to the interplay between social forces and a self-generated religious and moral guilt in her character’s heartbreaking descent.

Designer Leslie Travers’s extraordinary set (two immense, rusting steel gantries which ascend and descend above a polluted, grey marsh by the River Volga) reflects brilliantly the sense that the central characters’ are trapped, with happiness tangible, yet out of reach. From the outset people sing of the beauty of the Volga, but it is always beyond the soul-destroying drabness of the industrial, ecologically devastated landscape they inhabit.

The universally superb cast measures up to the emotional gymnastics of Janacek’s music, with Patricia Bardon (Marfa), Ric Furman (Boris) and Samuel Sakker (Tikhon) giving formidable expression to the forces that assail the ill-fated Katya.

From the grandeur of Janacek’s opera to the altogether more modest scale of the double bill (one solo piece and one two-hander) by Dingwall-based dance-theatre company Plan B. The first work, Tantalus, is performed and choreographed by young artist Neil Joseph Price, under the direction of Plan B’s artistic director Frank McConnell.

Price has Down’s Syndrome, a fact which is significant to both of the evening’s choreographies. At the outset of Tantalus (in a humorous reference to the plight of the Greek classical character after whom the piece is named) the dancer offers fruit to members of the audience, only to remove it as they attempt to take it.

Thereafter, Price appears to be in defiant conflict with a modern version of Tantalus’s condition (the mythological figure was placed, eternally, in a pool of water, with fruit growing above his head, yet, tantalisingly, just out of his grasp). Wearing casual contemporary dress, the dancer rips up modern day symbols of instruction and control, before delivering a graceful and self-assertive choreography to Quee MacArthur’s charming, gentle-yet-energetic internationalist musical score.

In a beautifully simple, yet startling and humorous, moment, an everyday table is transformed into an object that is both utilitarian and symbolic. Price’s play, both with it and through it, is a delightful metaphor for his refusal to be held back by a society which seems structured to impede him.

If Tantalus impresses, so, too, does A Pair of Genes, which is choreographed by McConnell and performed by both him and Price. A dance-theatre work with words, the piece focuses on both the massive genetic similarities, and the tiny, yet crucial, differences in DNA, that exist between any two human beings.

McConnell and Price are dressed in identical, quotidian and contemporary costumes (jeans, as the work’s title implies, and short-sleeved shirts). Playing on designer Miranda Melville’s deceptively simple set, they perform a beautifully funny opening sequence in which, as one disappears, the other appears in another, unexpected place.

From there, the work unfolds with what one might call a choreographic and (thanks to David Trouton’s lovely, sometimes Steve Reich-esque score) musical onomatopoeia. That is to say that the repetitions and variations reflect cleverly the similarity and difference that is the piece’s genetic subject.

The work ends with a powerful and sobering reflection by Price about what he considers to be the attempt to wipe out people with Down’s Syndrome through prenatal screening and abortion. He argues that it would be in our society’s enlightened self-interest to embrace the extra chromosome possessed by people with Down’s as it may yet prove to hold the cure to Alzheimer’s disease.

For tour dates for Plan B, visit: planbcreative.org