Skip to content Skip to main navigation Report an accessibility issue

Play Explores Power of Music in Troubled Times

A black and white historical photo of a young woman sitting at a desk with a skull on it

by Amy Beth Miller

Playwright Ian Kelly has always been intrigued by the question of what someone living in times of political polarization, repression, or war would do. His new work The Gates of Kiev explores that through the story of one of the 20th century’s greatest pianists, who publicly defied Soviet leader Josef Stalin.

“The play is about the response of the arts in times of war and political turmoil,” Kelly said. “It is a story for now, as well as a piece of lost history.”

A staged reading and performance at the University of Tennessee’s Clarence Brown Lab Theatre on June 24 will give audiences a look before the play’s London debut.

Kelly was redrafting the play this spring while serving as the first visiting writer for playwriting for English 484: Special Topics in Writing in the UT Department of English. He’s also a screenwriter, historical biographer, and actor, perhaps most widely recognized for his role in the Harry Potter movies as Hermione Granger’s father.

“The play is not just a tribute to those who defy the likes of (Vladimir) Putin or Stalin, but also more generally a piece about music, about love and friendship, and about the compromises we all make in life,” Kelly said.

Truth in History

Poster advertising the Gates of Kiev by Ian Kelly

He came across the story of pianist Maria Yudina, whom he calls “a sort of secular saint of political/artistic protest,” while working in Russia several years ago.

A graduate of the world-famous St. Petersburg Conservatory, Yudina was born to a Jewish family but converted to Orthodox Christianity. She is the only classical musician in Russia to survive defying Stalin, Kelly said, and she believed in the power of music to change hearts and save civilizations.

An historian as well as a dramatist, Kelly has written historical biographies of Casanova, Beau Brummell, actor Samuel Foote, and chef Antonin Carême. His play Mr. Foote’s Other Leg was an award-winning hit in London’s West End.

“Tales from history can resonate strongly in the present,” he said. “Sometimes truth can be more powerful than fiction.”

UT Workshop Before London Premiere

Kelly was working on The Gates of Kiev in Moscow before the current war with Ukraine began. He and his son attended the Bryansk film festival, on the Ukrainian border, which is now a front-line city.

He was commissioned to write the play to showcase the talents of Gala Chistiakova, one of Russia’s finest concert pianists today, at the Salzburg Music Festival.

Chistiakova and international ballet dancer Xander Parish are scheduled to perform in the play’s world premiere Sept. 4-14 at the Theatre Royal Windsor, before it heads to the West End. Parish left a position with the Mariinsky Ballet in Russia after the invasion of Ukraine.

West End director Roxana Silbert is flying over to direct the Knoxville workshop, which will feature UT Department of Theatre faculty members David Bryan Alley and Laura Beth Wells, and WUOT announcer and UT School of Music choral accompanist Melony Dodson.

The workshop also is an internship opportunity for UT students.Theatre major Cearan Jax Costello, who was a student in Kelly’s playwriting class this spring, will serve as stage manager. UT graduate Sebastian Van Horn (’22) will assist Costello.

Kelly said he is thankful for the support of Misty G. Anderson, head of the UT Department of English, and Kenneth J. Martin, head of the Department of Theatre.

Another of Kelly’s plays, Carême, is being filmed for an Apple Originals TV series, and his award-winning biography of Casanova has been adapted into a ballet, which recently premiered in Florida. He’s also working on other television, film, and theatre projects.

“I’ve adored being Knoxville,” Kelly said, calling the UT students “delightful, hilarious. and inspiringly talented — once we tuned into each other’s perplexing accents!”