Master Class by David Pownall

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BBC Radio 4, 31 January 2009
The premise of this play - first staged at London's Old Vic Theatre in the mid-1980s - was simple. In 1948 Joseph Stalin (Kenneth Cranham) and his sidekick Zhdanov (Trevor Cooper) invite the composers Prokofiev (Bruce Alexander) and Shostakovich (John Light) to a soirée. Over numerous draughts of vodka and plenty of false bonhome, they debate the nature of art and its relationship to power, and whether music had any real function in the communist state.
Like Carey Harrison's A Cook's Tour of Communism, broadcast on the World Service late last year, Master Class takes a long hard look at the pros and cons of living under the Soviet regime. At first it seems as if Prokofiev and Shostakovich are the victims of a repressie state as they endure ritual humiliation from Stalin and Zdhanov in particular, who appears to be a typical philistine solely concerned with money and class. But all is not what it seems - as the vodka flows, so Stalin expresses a wish to compose his own march incorporating Georgian folk-songs that express his own sense of national identity. Fearful for their security, the two composers willingly comply with his wishes. However the project fizzles out as the three men fail to agree about anything - the music, words or even the form of the projected composition. Incensed, Stalin berates the composers for their pretensions and tells them to write for the state rather than themselves. Despite his power, he is in many ways a frustrated personality, who longs to acquire the composers' musical knowledge.
Zdhanov is revealed to be a more complex personality than might have been first assumed. Beneath the philistine exterior there lurks an artistic personality: he has undergone extensive musical training and can readily express himself on the piano. However he has willingly sacrificed his education in pursuit of power, believing that it will provide him with greater financial security. While Shostakovich and Prokofiev are identified as great composers, Master Class asks us to reflect whether this is enough: does this provide them with food on the table. and have they become no narcissistic as to forget their responsibilities towards the wider community? The play asks these questions, but leaves them unresolved. Are the two composers 'good' Russians, or do they need to acquire a generosity of spirit through their 'Master Class' with Stalin and Zdhanov?
Master Class is an extremely funny play - no more so when the four protagonists try to produce Stalin's ideal composition and end up creating a cacophonous racket that would shame anyone who really cares for music. Kenneth Cranham's Stalin stood out - a self-pitying brute of a man covering up his personal shortcomings with ostentatious displays of (mostly verbal) violence. One could see why his people feared him; no one knew how he would react to any given situation. Jessica Dromgoole directed this Saturday Play.

A Cook's Tour of Communism by Carey Harrison