Hildegard Von Bingen sounds like she was an amazing woman. Born in 1098 she lived to nearly twice the life expectancy of the time and accomplished some amazing things despite horrible oppression. She is still recognised for her scientific, spiritual and artistic endeavours. Bound By Theatre have brought her to VAULT Festival with the promise of a ‘physical opera’ to explore her internal world and to immerse us in her mind and heart. So much potential and, within only the duration of one performance, so little time.
In fact, I wonder if it was a self-imposed challenge to condense 81 years into only thirty-five minutes. What we see is three women, all as Von Bingen, who give some insight into what her thoughts might have been at various points in her life. I’m not sure if there are extracts from Von Bingen’s work in the script, or if it is written to reflect an older style of writing, but it is quite difficult to follow. There is no time for an outline or a narrative that is anything other than the internal workings of Von Bingen’s mind, which means it is unclear as to what is going on to anyone who doesn’t already know of Von Bingen’s life.
Fine, I can appreciate that perhaps you might not even be thinking of going to this if you don’t already know who Von Bingen was, but I didn’t. What I know about her now is from my Googling on the way home, and I would be interested to try this performance again to see if I understand it more armed with this new knowledge. However, I was disappointed to find the ‘physical opera’ to be entirely un-operatic. Musician David Cieri does, however, provide some atmospheric backdrop using a harmonium (lovely) and the rim of a glass of water (nearly inaudible). A strange rendition of ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend’ seems out of place and didn’t redeem what I felt was lacking.
The physical side is clearer though. The three cast members, Miriam Elwell-Sutton, Sarah Kent and Kristin Winters, give empathetic gestural and movement-based performances, devised by Movement Director Gabrielle Moleta. It is effectively visceral at times. They use some hanging translucent drapes to transform moments and movements, but they were hanging directly at the feet of audience members (myself included) quite literally blocking us from the performance. Overall, the show is disappointing, but not entirely unenjoyable. If you’re a Hildegard Von Bingen fan then I would suggest you give this one a go because I am truly curious to know if I am just not the target audience for this. With more time and something concrete for us Von Bingen noobs to get a grip on I could see this turning into something good – just don’t call it an opera if it’s not one.
Created by: Kristin Winters
Music by: David Cieri
Lighting Design by: Alex Forey
Movement Direction by: Gabrielle Moleta
Dramaturg: Dr Katherine Hipkiss
Hildegard Von Bingen plays at VAULT Festival until 26 February. Further information and bookings can be found here.