4.48 Psychosis -Lyric Hammersmith

Yesterday’s feast of culture ended with the final performance of Philip Venables’ opera based on Sarah Kane’s play, 4.48 Psychosis , a joint collaboration between Royal Opera House and Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

Having read very conflicting views of the opera, and also a discussion about the transformation from play to opera on BBC radio 4’s Front Row I really wasn’t at all sure what I was likely to experience or how I’d react.

The set, a white box, with a door that never opens, with frosted glass effect, that bright light shines through on occasions, a loud speaker on the wall facing the audience, and a door that opens stage right. Some institutional type wooden chairs and an oblong similarly institutional table is really the sum total of what you get to see other than a pile of clothes, some cardboard boxes etc. The white box could be a hospital, the inside of someone’s head, the archetypal exhibition space or all three or something altogether different. The gallery space appealed to me as a practising artist- there is something mind-numbing and totally lacking in emotional understanding about the white cube, and a white cube is where people’s fantasies, nightmares and imaginings are acted out for oneself and for others to witness.

The band (hardly an orchestra- with the most remarkable percussion section, including bass drum and saw, at times vigorously, other times subtly, always wittily and intelligently played) was placed above the box- so an integral part of the performance.

6 female singers, all wearing particularly unflattering baggy grey cardigans, jeans and black vest tops took the part or parts- of what? who?

Much of the script from the play was not spoken or sung but flashed up as video on the white walls. Use of electronic effects and pre-recorded material added to the feelings of alienation of the performers to the audience and the performers to each other.  The physical separation of the band to the singers- above rather than the conventional below in the orchestral pit,  further changed the dynamic of music to singing, and performance to audience.

The opening was accompanied by the very irritating music you hear when put on hold, or the type of tune that infuriatingly gets stuck as an ear-worm in your head.  It’s enough to drive you crazy- so for a character suffering from mental illness, it would not take much to push her further into the abyss. Up flashes “What do you offer your friends to make them so supportive?” Straight away there is trade-off, that without you giving something you cannot expect anything in return.

The shadows of the singers criss crossing the walls as they slowly move around the stage, half singing, half speaking, Albern Berg-like (there were moments that reminded me of the anguish of Wozzeck)  counting backwards, the standard method of checking for clarity of thought, the numbers flashing, then suddenly going forwards rather than backwards all add to the stress effect. There is dialogue (mostly flashed up on video, accompanied by excellent “conversations” between the percussion, that is precisely timed to co-incide with the video, which is often black and almost as often witty. The subject matter is dark but there is unexpected laughter in this performance.

Venables uses a raft of techniques in his composition. I was very moved by the use of the ostinato, Purcellian lament-like, towards the end of the opera. “I have been dead a long time” and as the singer turns to the audience she sings that she must return to her roots. “I” as the voice cracks, then “I” with an accompanying minor chord, the snare drum rattling, firing off questions and the bass drum, insistently, responding.

“Why have you forsaken me?” the cry from the New Testament of Jesus on the cross, and of the character/s personality/ies in this opera as the white space is cleared, tidied away, and then a motif that reminded me of Bach’s Mass in B minor (was it intentional?)

But did all this work as an opera? In a word, not really. I felt it was about 15 minutes too long: there seemed to be a bit too much padding out to make it into an acceptable length, which was actually a shame. For me, as a musician, an artist, a performer, this seemed to be more of a theatrical music piece rather than an opera as such. There was too much being conveyed through the use of video and projection which seemed to defeat the concept of opera, but….

and the set felt too much like a student job- too on the cheap for words. As if nothing had really been thought about with any depth, even though the set itself had given me lots to think about. How does that work? For something to be really thought provoking and quite unimaginative at the same time….

Like any good opera, I felt I had gone on a massive journey by the end of the production. I had been wrung dry, I had experienced catharsis as  the Mozarts and Wagners and such like can achieve. Therefore, despite my misgivings, there was something fundamentally really “good” that happened on that stage. We all knew what would happen (although, remarkably, the psychoanalyst sitting next to me knew nothing about Sarah Kane or what he was about to see…..I had to give him a potted history in about 5 minutes flat before curtain up) and yet as a collective, we still sat in stunned silence at the end. Gripped in the tragedy we knew would play out. And then the audience erupted.

Would I see it again? Probably not. Would I see other work by Philip Venables? Yes. And Sarah Kane? Yes. And Chroma, the band playing? Most definitely yes. And the singers were fantastic even if they had little opportunity to demonstrate their acting ability. So like the curate’s egg, good in parts. But those good parts were fantastic.



Northern Ballet 1984 at Sadler’s Wells

I was really privileged yesterday to see two wonderful performances in London. The first was Northern Ballet’s production of Orwell’s 1984. Music by Alex Baranowski, and directed and choreographed by Jonathan Watkins, this was a truly contemporary take on the iconic story we know so well.

One might think that over 30 years since the date of the title, and nearly 70 years since it was written, that there might be little left to say, to interpret, to be relevant to a 21st century audience.

You know what I’m going to say- of course it’s as relevant as ever. Think CCTV, cyber warfare, monitoring of mobile phones, our use of the internet, continuing issues of police trust, bankers, politicians, the way that the media appears to be in the hands of the very few,  our communal need to “gang up” on those we look down on. (whether it is Proles or immigrants…)  Whether we can truly trust our work colleagues, our friends, our lovers is a story as long as human existence, and perhaps now, with social media, our abilities to be treacherous, to be complicit, to be manipulated or the manipulator are all the stronger.

So, a subject on which so much is left to be discussed;  Watkins’ production, takes the story and runs with it. He leaves us questioning- who to trust, what does Big Brother really know is going on, and what is surmised, and through movement, excellent acting, a set that is stunning and lighting and video installation, we are immersed in a total theatre experience.

The music is sublime- Baranowski’s use of minimalism, Romanticism,  imaginative orchestration and the use of instrumental leitmotifs (clarinet for Julia, cello for Winston, horns and brass for O’Brien) helps bind the piece together. It is never just narrative, there is an intellectual robustness underpinning the composition which was most impressive. The same goes for the choreography- yes the narrative is there but there was an abstracted emotion which raised the performance to something far more meaningful.  And the use of video was clever- blurred when Winston couldn’t be seen, and clear when he could (or was that just our perceptions, and Big Brother could in reality see all the time?) The colour changes- use of pale turquoise, pink and pale mauve to create a sense of unfounded security were subtle, the yellow angular fist hands reminded one of swastikas.

The corp de ballet, both male and female (and I love the fact that Northern Ballet is pretty much equally male and female) had excellent acting skills as well as powerful expressive dancing ability. It is so exciting to watch such talent.

And the portrayal of Mr Charringon, who in turn shambles and demands money, appears to be helpful and in fact is double crossing, and the stunning shelf of junk in his antique shop, so beautifully lit by Chris Davey, was a pleasure. It would be easy to create a cheap story line here, but it became something much stronger, more complex and fascinating to watch.

The ending was as harrowing to watch as the book is to finish- and yet I would have watched it all again, straight away. It seemed to be the kind of production that would benefit from revisiting to catch all the many subtleties of all aspects of its creation. I really hope it will be shown again soon and not put to bed for too many years.



Frankenstein- the ballet (encore screening)

So this is somewhat late as a review- the international screening took place last Wednesday but I was in the Highlands and busy writing, so caught the encore screening at the Manchester Printworks on the way back (like you do.)

By the way, the conversion of the Printworks into a destination entertainment/foodie place is quite extraordinary. It doesn’t matter what the time is, you walk in and you’re in a different time zone, in fact a different part of life. I turned up just before 2pm on Sunday and there was a band playing, people dancing, and there is no natural light- so it’s as if you’re partying all night, whatever the time of day. Clever and probably helps people spend more money. They’re relaxed, they’re in the mood for some fun, so it’s easy to empty pockets.

But despite the commercialism, I did love it. There’s a theatricality that is so appealing. I would at this point upload some photos but my camera is playing up (chose your epithet****)


Back to the production. I wasn’t sure what to expect having read some not such good reviews. But I’d seen photos of the costumes which looked stunning. I was right. Some of the sets weren’t quite as imaginative as I’d hoped, but the dissection theatre- just like a Dutch painting, jars of specimens at the ready, was perfect, as was the new fangled electricity generating machine- a flight of creativity and imagination by the props department.

And the costumes- the monster’s costume/make up was remarkable- as only I suspect the talents of the best make up artist can create. And the physical visceral dancing and movement just added to the emotional depth of portrayal of his character. So wanting to be loved, so unloveable, and that desire converting to hatred was a journey of mire leading to catastrophe on a grand scale.  The stage littered with dead bodies at the end was a typically Romantic gothic outcome but nothing else would do in the circumstances.

The portrayal of Elizabeth as the pure, caring innocent of Mary Shelley’s novel was developed so that she did seem to eventually portray a sexually awakened woman, both in love with Frankenstein as a sister and a lover (one of those oddities of the storyline- somehow she’s an adopted sister as well as the love interest- Freud would have had a lot to say to Mary Shelley…), a person who sees the best and brings out the best in everyone she meets, but in her tussles with the monster we see both her strength and a subliminated desire.

The deftness in lightness and darkness- evil and good- was time and again illustrated in the set and in the costumes. There was a deep shadow over the wedding scene- with the corp de ballet’s deepest crimson and midnight blue dresses there was no doubt that there was something truly awful about to happen despite the white and silver of the married couple. The grim shadows and dark colours at William’s birthday party  despite the pretty decorations and light coloured cake, again sent a warning of tragedy unfolding.

I was always going to be a little suspicious of a contemporary ballet that was so much based on narrative, but the physicality and robustness, the raw energy of the male pas de deux- Frankenstein and the monster, towards the end of Act 3 countered any concerns I’d had. It was the most accomplished choreography and dancing I’d seen for a very long time- totally gripped by it, for once it was good to see it on screen rather than on stage as the audience benefited from the cameras being able to zoom in. (Usually it annoys me as it stops me being able to watch as I would live, being able to scan for interesting action taking place elsewhere on stage.) Liam Scarlett has done a remarkable job of creating something new and very exciting from a story we all feel we know so well- it’s adopted and in the communal psyche- but it felt as if we had the story completely revisited by this production.

I must comment on the musical score as well. After the first act I was already wondering if Lowell Leibermann’s exquisite score would survive recreating as an orchestral suite. There is so much in it that repays a return visit, and it would be a real shame if it only ever was played when the ballet was produced- as the story is so well conveyed in the music itself and the orchestration was beautifully constructed.

It was sad thatthere were only about 15 or 20 people watching the encore, but I hope that it was packed out on Wednesday night, as it so deserved to be.





5 Soldiers at Fort George



Rosie Kay dance company has been touring in Scotland with a  remarkable dance performance, 5 Soldiers: The Body is in the Front Line. I was lucky enough to see it last night at Fort George, an 18th century  fort that has been obviously added to as it is still in use. Situated just to the north of Inverness, there are beautiful views  of the strip of sea that divides the land. Last night I was hypnotised by the goods train crossing the rail bridge as well…

Welcomed to the site by serving soldiers and serenaded by two pipers, it was hard to specify exactly when the performance began. Was it when the dancers come on stage or was it before then.

We feel the vibrations through the gymnasium floor and raked seating  and the clock ticking both back projected, time in real time passing and the sound of time passing while the dancers, desert booted and camoflougued, sit waiting.

Chewing haribo sweets, mock fighting and passing the time representing the time waiting for something to happen,  for all the training to come into focus, is an important part of this piece. It is a leitmotif that runs through it as waiting must be a fundamental part of being an active soldier.

This “silence” (which is never actually silent) is punctuated by energised drills, contemplation on the seedier side of soldiering – as the military representative at the discussion aftwe the show put it “womanising,abusing alcohol….” and fighting hand to hand and shooting sequences. I was amazed by the parachute sequence which was beautiful  and moving. Its stillness  and movement combined so subtly, so realistically in terms of emotional expression and the final part where one of the soldiers loses his legs in an IUD attack  and its aftermath was poignant and hopeful. I was particularly impressed by the choreography of some of the combat scenes when the dancers’bodies contorted so really portal the anger and frustration of war.

Holding the event in the fort meant that there were many soldiers and families watching. I really wondered how they reacted to such a powerful expression of life and sacrifice.

Some articulated their thoughts at the discussion held after the show. One family commented that their daughter was in the military and she had had a really tough time so it was good to see her struggles as a woman being recognised in the piece. Although Rosie Kay said she hadn’t wanted the dancers to act as such, Shelly Haden said it was really important to her to have a part to portray and that doing training with real soldiers had given her a real insight into life for a soldier. Luke Bradshaw, who plays the officer, also found the acting of a part was essential to help in conveying meaning.

The dancers and soldiers agreed that there is a lot that links the two professions: the need for physical and mental fitness, reliance on your body to not let you down, the emptiness when you can’t work for whatever reason.

There is still a chance to see the show in Aberdeen -so well worth seeing it.




















MiKo Berry at Moniach Mhor

A fantastic entertaining workshop with MiKo Berry  performing his witty and punchy poetry tonight. He is open and honest about issues that have affected him, while carrying the audience  with him, up hill and down dale. Happy to answer questions, he gave the group much needed support and encouragement.

And now we’re staying up,  moved on to whisky, chatting!

Earlier we went to Reigann community  wood, had a great walk led by Heather, who as well as taking the course, works at the centre. M I took loads of photos,   and looked for  inspiration for this afternoon’s  writing of Japanese tankas.

And Friday afternoon’s job is creating some 8 fold micro books from some short poems  we wrote.


Party time in Manchester


After a fascinating and inspirational day at the Lapidus conference (and I discovered it is an acronym not something deep to do with stones and rocks…..the Association of Literary Arts for Personal Development and…..something I forgot to scribble down) I drove over to Manchester.

I’d only visited the city for the first time in February when I spent a few hours at the Whitworth but I’m already smitten. But then it doesn’t take a lot for me to love a city. The more old and new, regeneration and dereliction, shiny glass clad offices and converted industrial mills and factories,Victorian reliefs and classical columns and the de rigor cranes thrusting into the sky the happier I feel! And there’s a lot of all of that here.

And tonight I was in an even better mood.

Filter Theatre’s version/adaptation of Twelfth Night at HOME in Manchester is a fabulous party mix of tequila shots and crisp packets, pizza and beer, silly games, excellent live music, totally drunken hedonism and infatuated love with a dash of Calvinist gloom and mourning clashing with anarchy (thanks to Olivia’s instructions to her out of control household, only broken by her lust for “Cesario”)

I particularly enjoyed the way that actors played more than one part- Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Orsino, Feste and Maria and most wittily and cleverly directed, Viola and Sebastian gave a tautness and strong sense of ensemble.

This show is going on tour so try to catch it if you can. Definitely not suitable for purists or puritans but for a great evening out (its 90 minutes with no interval so not a late night) it’s well worth seeing.


Glasgow Sun (day)


A relatively short train ride from Edinburgh’s  iconic Waverley station takes you to the other side, the other country that is Glasgow. I hadn’t visited since 1989 when I had an interview for Scottish Opera. Those were the days when you were invited for interview “because you sound interesting  and we wanted to meet you as we think you’ll do something pretty special”….. and my train ticket from Cambridge was paid for as well. Even on the way there I was falling for the place:talking to people on the train  I came away with some phone numbers (this was pre

mobiles and email days!) In case I got the job and was looking for somewhere to stay/help with finding somewhere to rent. The genuinely open friendly nature of Glaswegians overwhelmed  me as did the architecture of a then grimy tough city.

Today I walked again down  some of those streets, now a lot cleaner and probably fewer beggars  and definitely less drunks, and could immediately see what I’d loved so much first time round.

A stunning mix of architecture, from proud 19th century commercial success to postmodern cine world and  14000+ steps,  according to Eli,  one of my companions on this voyage of discovery round most of Charles Rennie MacKintosh’s landmark sites.

Open spaces and child friendly parks, churches and tea rooms, offices and chambers,tenements and public buildings and of course lots of educational establishments….the finest of which must  be the Glasgow School of Art,so much of it so tragically destroyed in a fire in 2014. But like Glasgow itself, it is rising from the ashes. Glasgow was put on the world map when it became city of culture many years ago; now its art school is returning to join the dynamism and energy that pervades the city.

Everywhere you look you see the mantra “people make Glasgow”. It’s true of any place  but the difference to many is that Glasgow seems to believe it.