Pros: Startling design, tight musicians and a powerful performance.
Cons: The performers were difficult to hear at times.
It’s not often a monarch gets a credit in the programme, but in this case George III’s name appears proudly next to Peter Maxwell Davies, Randolph Stow, William Walton and Edith Sitwell. This double contribution to Grimeborn – Arcola’s underground opera festival – consists of Façade (a set of Sitwell’s poems accompanied by Walton’s music), and Maxwell Davies’ Eight Songs For A Mad King, (which uses the famed king’s own words to portray his insanity).
Both pieces are performed in the setting of a post-WW1 military psychiatric hospital; the musicians double as patients and before the music begins they move around the stage, convincingly quivering or crying. This disturbing, immersive section is punctuated with verses from Sassoon, Owen and other war poets fused with trench noises which provoke post-traumatic responses from the performers. The rat-a-tat of gunfire makes them cower one minute whilst a sharp burst of reveille on a bugle mouthpiece starts a small scuffle the next. The design picks up on snatches of the poetry: standard issue dungarees are the same ‘dirty-white’ as the dawn in Sassoon’s Aftermath. One patient grabs a megaphone and herds the others into position at music stands, announcing a performance of Façade.
A man and a woman – Danny Standing and Charmian Bedford – recite Sitwell’s poetry, grabbing props from a hospital trolley to illustrate their recitals. The verses are dense and delivered with rhythmical precision, but there are two issues which interrupt my enjoyment of the show; the enunciation is not clear enough, and the intimate six musician live band creates a loud sound in a small space that drowns out the voices of Standing and Bedford.
Despite occasional scatty moments the musicians work well together, but they shine most prominently during their solo moments – especially clarinettist Charlie Dale-Harris, who produces a beautifully warm sound.
Much of the meaning of the poetry is indecipherable but a barrage of syllables, like a stream of machine gun fire, conveys some of the frenzied sentiment. Their apparent silliness is at odds with the semi-animated projections that show sobering images of trenches, graves and poppies. It is a chilling contrast.
These projections are superfluous in the much more comprehensible second half, Eight Songs For A Mad King, which follows George III as he tries to teach his birds to sing and battles with his sanity. There is a change in orchestra members – saxophone and trumpet are replaced with the more nuanced sounds of the violin and piano. The musicians wear grotesque bald caps with feathers sticking out like half-plucked birds and complete the look with greying costumes that appear to have been drained of colour.
Samuel Pantcheff puts in a startling, full-force performance as the Mad King. His perfectly controlled voice slides from growls to screeches, screams and yelps as he prances around a bathtub in a pool of white feathers. All sense of normality has disappeared: the instruments have gone as haywire as the King’s mind, not only in terms of what they play but also in terms of how they are played. The pianist plucks the strings inside the piano and the cellist plays with the wooden side of the bow. Famously, the score of one scene in this piece is drawn as a giant birdcage. It is a brilliant and disturbing interpretation of madness, with projections suggesting that the King is in fact a young soldier driven to insanity by the war.
The stunning second half eclipses the scattier Façade of the first half, but the whole production is a vivid and forceful display of talent from the team under director Ella Marchment and conductor Oliver Zeffman. The psychiatric hospital setting works well, but is undermined by unnecessary projections which, rather than reinforcing the martial theme, actually distract from it. Still, any shortcomings can be forgiven in the astonishing, mesmerizing Eight Songs For A Mad King – a gratifying fulfillment of Grimeborn’s aim to give young performers the chance to explore ideas and to make opera accessible and innovative.
Author: Edith Sitwell, William Walton, Randolph Stow, Peter Maxwell Davies, King George III
Director: Ella Marchment
Conductor: Oliver Zeffman
Booking until: 7th September 2014, then Rose Theatre 10th September
Booking link: http://melossinfonia.co.uk/facade-eight-songs-for-a-mad-king
Box Office: 020 7503 1646 (Arcola), 020 8174 0090 (Rose Theatre)