Like a Chemist from Canada

This week I spent several inspiring evenings in the company of director and Théȃtre de Complicité founder member, Annabel Arden. Although Annabel regularly directs opera (a new Andrea Chenier for Opera North in 2015), I was involved in workshops for a new play. Music is never far away though. Like a Chemist from Canada tells the extraordinary true story of Shostakovich’s visit to Oxford in 1958 to collect an honorary degree. The text is by first-time playwright Lewis Owens and takes its factual detail from a substantial letter written after the event by Sir Isaiah Berlin, the Oxford academic who hosted Shostakovich.

(from right) Harold Macmillan, Hugh Gaitskell, Alan Herbert, 
and Dmitry Shostakovich, Oxford, England, June 1958.

Our text this week was a jumping-off point for discussion and improvisation rather than a finished script – unusual for me, as I generally get to comment on the music rather than the words in development work like this, and all the more interesting because of it. The play is not about music per se but music has an essential role in it. A key aim of this week was to define and refine the relationship between the musical text and the verbal text. Luckily we have pianist Colin Stone on the project, who specialises in Shostakovich’s music, to help us build a musical character line through the play.

The play is also a piece about real people – we know, for instance, that one of the Russian characters went on to be a high-level spy – which raises questions of authenticity vs art. It’s tempting to include interesting details that are historically accurate, but which slow down the momentum, or snag the audience’s attention in an unintended MacGuffin. This project aspires to more than simply re-creating a historical event, layering fact and imagination, past and present, words and melody, in a way that demands the audience’s complicity and compassion.

Many of the same challenges pertain whether we are working on music or words for a piece still in development. Seasoned writers know that they can’t afford to have ‘favourite’ moments without also being prepared to sacrifice them if they don’t work in context. Lewis is fantastically open to Annabel’s treatment of the play and has had to agree to kill a few of his darlings in this week’s process. Ideas are offered, interrogated and claimed or discarded.

It’s a steep learning curve for all of us.


Performances of Like a Chemist from Canada will be at the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford, July 3, 2015 and the Duke’s Hall, Royal Academy of Music, June 14, 2015.

Picture credit: Oxford Mail and Thames/Newsquest Oxfordshire