Dr Lewis Owens, author of the play Like a chemist from Canada. Shostakovich, Isaiah Berlin and Oxford on the visit of the famous Soviet composer Dmitry Shostakovich to Oxford University

Ten years ago, with the help of Henry Hardy (Isaiah Berlin’s editor) and the encouragement of Alan Mercer (DSCH Journal editor), I published a collection of telegrams and letters surrounding the visit of Dmitry Shostakovich to Oxford in 1958 to receive his honorary doctorate.

The correspondence was largely self-explanatory with a clear chronology: so why re-explore it and why, more ambitiously, adapt the episode for stage a decade later?

Several reasons came to mind: firstly, the story is a fascinating, humorous, and poignant portrayal of the clash between two distinct, and distinctly insular, worlds: the pompous rituals of Oxford University and the unsmiling officialdom of Soviet Russia. When Shostakovich finally arrives in Oxford for his three-day stay, hosted by Isaiah Berlin, we are presented not only with a unique insight into the inner personalities of Shostakovich, Berlin, and others, but also a searing reminder of the value of art in the Cold War.

In all this, we have the basis of a very interesting historical reconstruction of an important event that recognises and acknowledges the genius of Shostakovich.

Nevertheless, I believe that if we look deeper we can add a contemporary significance to this historical foundation. How much has really changed since 1958? Are we, as Gorbachev recently declared, entering a new Cold War? And what is the role of the British government in all this? While the play does not propose any explicit political message, it does seek to raise more questions than answers.

Alongside the creativity of director Victor Sobchak and a cast of highly talented actors, we also have the brilliance of pianist Colin Stone and mezzo-soprano Clare McCaldin to offer a necessary musical flavour to the play. Following the play, Stone will perform a selection of Preludes and Fugues and later be joined on stage by the acclaimed Sacconi Quartet for a performance of Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet. As a playwright, I have been grateful to many people for guidance, not least Henry Hardy and Peter Oppenheimer both of whom knew Isaiah Berlin extremely well and have very positively endorsed the script. As Dr Henry Hardy, Isaiah Berlin’s editor, Wolfson College, says: “The life of Isaiah Berlin contained several episodes that cry out for theatrical treatment, and Lewis Owens here dramatises one of them, co-starring Shostakovich, with intelligence and flair.”

Peter Oppenheimer, of Christ Church, agrees: “Shostakovich honoured: a thought-provoking snapshot, drawn from authentic documents and music, of ceremonial Oxford meeting totalitarian Russia.”

Like a Chemist from Canada. Shostakovich, Isaiah Berlin and Oxford, will be at the Sheldonian Theatre on July 3 at 7.30pm. Call 01865 305305.

For more information visit edmissionuk.co.uk/like-a-chemist-from-canada