Tuesday, 5 June 2012


Old Municipal Market, 17th May

What have we here? A new production of a piece of 'music theatre' by Harrison Birtwistle and Tony Harrison, based around our old friend the murder ballad 'Cruel Sister', last seen in these parts via Julia Wolfe's musical reworking. ('Bow Down' would seem to be an alternate title from one of its many variants.)

The staging strikes you as audacious. It's put on in the disused municipal market, with minimal props, without amplification, where the only electricity is used for the quite bare lighting. The music comes from flute and oboe, more often played trillingly and screechingly than to make melodies. Percussion is more often supplied by props within the scene than by instruments, such as spades striking the concrete floor.

This could be called audacious, but it's actually quite smart.The cavernous, echoey space is functionally useful for an unamplified work. But more than that, it was fitting. I would rather have seen it here than in the Suffolk forest, which was another option on the itinerary. The simplicity of the staging isn't just about minimising distractions from the content, it's part of the piece. Despite the folk roots it's not interested in whisking us off to some pastoral otherplace where the drama takes place, with forests and rivers. It's diegetic. They the performers and we their audience remain in that stark room, they addressing us as often as each other. Quite often they talk as though addressing each other while looking out at us. There's a recurrent gag about characters prompting each other.

...then again, perhaps that line above should be ”because” of the folk roots.” For a drama it's remarkably rooted in that original folk song, not elaborating or fleshing out characters. And folk music is often diegetic, the frame becomes part of the picture. Think of the number of folk songs which start with the explanation that we're about to be sung a song.

For example, the performance kicks off with a recitation of the ballad's opening. Despite the term 'Opera Group', this is thankfully done in northern dialect, not opera's strangulated tones. And yet a recitation, even an entirely faithful one, works differently to a ballad. In the ballad's most well-known version, by Pentangle, you are aware that the line “lay the bent to the bonnie broom” is continually repeated. But you don't hear each iteration, they blend into the repetition of the music, they become punctuation, your brain starts to substitute the mental equivalent of little ditto marks.

Not so with a verbal recitation. Each instance of “there were two sisters” slaps you anew. Which is surely the point. What would seem familiar, even naturalised, in a song is reformulated and restaged to feel new, strange and arresting. It's like the folk song stretched and flattened, it's inner workings exposed. If a folk song was a picture of a scene, this was like an overlaid series of rough, diagrammatic sketches.

Visually the piece played with making and breaking symmetry, just as it did with the ballad's rhyming couplets. It's point may well have been to compare the paired lines to the two sisters, apparently harmoniously matched (“dark/fair”, “water/earth” etc.). Yet the breaking is inherent to the pairing, the lines are not equal, one must always close the other.

There is something simultaneously childlike and sinister in the ritualised performance that reminded me of the adults-playing-children scenario of Dennis Potter's 'Blue Remembered Hills.' It's a dark, almost drippingly Freudian vision of a reality predisposed to conflict and violence - “there were two sisters who will die.” (Though Freud would doubtless have insisted they missed a trick by not making the wooing knight and the “baron of power” father one and the same.) When the drowned sister is washed up, in a scene black with humour two fishermen lasciviously set about dismembering her, which certainly didn't happen in the more family-friendly Pentangle version.

It's interesting to see how much variety can be wrung from this most simple of set-ups, either visually or in terms of mood. And it's an interesting attempt to adapt from one medium to another rather than simply lift, to take creative advantage by playing up the differences between them.

Yet I felt not a little skeptical...

The aim would seem to be to confront us with the corpse beneath the surface of the bucolic-looking stream, the dark content behind the pretty folk tune. But wasn't that dark content already visible for anyone who cared to go looking for it? Moreover, isn't that contrast between the dark and the fair the point of the song, the very thing which gives it bite? Doesn't the very term 'murder ballad' suggest all that is an intentional juxtaposition? The Pentangle song essentially goes “fum-diddley-i, diddley-din, then she smashed her bloody head in.”

Folk fans are often caricatured as hopeless nostalgists, cupping hands to their ears to block out the intrusive present. But it's got no more truth to it than any other caricature. Folk fans, in my experience, love nothing more than a good murder ballad. They joined the dark side some good while ago...

It seems to me that high art normally does to low art what the rich do to the poor, turn up offering to bring something then taking whatever they can get their hands on. Arguably, the performance does to the original ballad what the fisherman do to the dead sister's corpse. Admittedly, there's a limit to how far you could pin this piece to the term 'high art.' Yet there's enough truth to it to have raised my skepticism.

Moreover, composed in 1977, this piece has something of the world of Seventies experimentalism about it. You can sense that Godardian perverse glee in stripping away anything pleasurable, as if all that was inherently “bourgeois” and truth and needle-in-the-eye repetition were somehow synonymous. Here it's the folk melody that's stripped away, anything with strings to pluck tossed out for something austere to the point of confrontational. All of which is now so out of fashion that it now seems almost new again. Yet we shouldn't forget where it led last time. And last time it led nowhere very much.

Perhaps this was also why one of my favourite elements of the ballad was removed, the dead sister's corpse being made into a harp which then 'sings' an accusation of her murderer. Perhaps that was dismissed as romanticism. Instead this was replaced by a more hackneyed ghostly revenge, like something out of EC comics.

In addition, the stripped-down setting threw a great emphasis on the performers, yet they varied greatly in quality. Some were excellent but the sisters in particular were surprisingly weak. That may have marred my gruntlement as much as anything conceptual or thematic. (Interestingly, it may have worked better had they all been weak. It would have worked within the intonatory, ritualised nature of the performance. True, it would have been best if they'd all been good performers. But the problem was the mismatch.)

The result was interesting and (at least by today's standards) unusual but only fitfully successful. Like the ballad I couldn't really decide whether it was dark or fair, whether it was killing something off or giving it new life. Which was perhaps the point...

Black Rock, Brighton Seafront, 26th May

Generik Vapeur are a crazy French performance troupe who seem to specialise in the grand outdoor performances you like to imagine crazy French performance troupes get up to, but imagine you're only imagining that. They are, in brief, crazy. Crazy in a good way. But mostly crazy in a crazy way...

At last year's Festival they performed 'Droles d'Ouiseaux,' aka 'Funny Bird', which involved hanging multicoloured cars up from a washing line on the Level. (In case you don't believe me I have photographic evidence.) This year's show was if anything bigger, bolder and... well, crazier.

A bunch of upturned shipping containers had been made into a modernist wicker man. Films and graphics were projected onto him, as performers act around, upon, dangling from, and even inside him, as hatches open in the sides to reveal scenes, like a kind of surrealist advent calendar. Or they circumambulate it while hoisted by a crane. Or... look, sometimes you've just got to be there!

Through charmingly thick French accents, they claim this as their potted history of the world. The Festival blurb mentions “the pressing concerns of our age” and “the ghosts of globalisation.” Indeed, at one stage they pause to pay tribute to the popular risings round the world.

But mostly, it's not a piece of theatre which employs penetrating symbolism to invite analysis. Trying to join up those disconnected scenes would be a fool's errand. It's a show! You're better off wallowing in the spectacle of it all, drinking in the derangement. A favourite moment of mine, presumably tailored for English audiences, was when a projected clock struck four and they promptly broke for tea, waiters scurrying around the audience with cups.

This seems to have been the Festival where austerity really hit. Rumour claims that many Fringe shows were flat-out cancelled. I attended less events myself, though for me time poverty was as much a factor. The free, public stuff didn't disappear but seemed diminished. The exhibitions, with the exception of the Patrick Hamilton tribute 'Hangover Square', were a total waste of time. (Disclaimer, I didn't do on the “interactive seafront walk”, so please exclude that from my dissing.)

So this was probably just what we needed. A fantastic show, held for free on a glorious summer's evening, with an amassed crowd (some contend ten thousand strong) clapping heartily then walking home with great big grins on our collective faces.s The Festival spirit finally appears for it's final weekend.

Zee yuu next yee-arr!” they promised at the curtain call.

You never know your luck...

The same show, but not from Brighton...

Both events, as you may have surmised, part of the Brighton Festival.

Coming soon! The play's the thing...

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