BWW Review: HOTSPUR/PIERROT LUNAIRE, Grimeborn, Arcola Theatre
Until an announcement about a post-show talk, I hadn't realised that this production, by FormidAbility, mixed disabled and non-disabled professionals. That's partly a tribute to the execution of the company's ethos of inclusion and accessibility, and partly due to opera's unique demands on the viewer.
Any opera asks us questions about where to direct our gaze, what to listen to and what merely to hear, how to interpret music, movement and libretto's creation of meaning, what to sift from the sensory overload for processing as the show speeds on.
Having a signdancer (Isolte Avila) simultaneously play the same character as the singer (Joanne Roughton-Arnold) in Hotspur seemed no more disruptive than the surtitles and movement of Pierrot (David Bower) as his story was told in the second opera of the evening. The radical approach and genre-busting confidence in using such performers is applauded, but it's all of a piece with the art form - a good integrated result all round.
For all that, both works are difficult to love. Hotspur is set in 14th-century Northumberland, a mother, Elizabeth Mortimer, recounting the life of her eponymous son, Henry Percy, doomed to a gruesome death in England's mediaeval game of thrones. Though played with great conviction by Scott Wilson's band (especially overworked percussionist, Calie Hough), Gillian Whitehead's music eschews tunes in favour of a more avant-garde approach to music making that doesn't give the uninitiated much to hold on to.
In Pierrot Lunaire, Arnold Schoenberg is hardly any easier on the ear, but there's just enough of the music that would inspire the likes of Frederick Hollander and Mischa Spoliansky to create their cabaret lieder a decade or so later to guide us through. The music is very much helped by David Bower, his Pierrot a mischievous Ken Campbell-like presence, telling his physical version alongside that which is sung.
Joanne Roughton-Arnold sings both works very well, although the Sprechstimme style means that we lose some of the beautiful German poetry which looks overly mannered in the surtitles, but fits the music perfectly in the original. That is Schoenberg's choice though, not the singer's personal interpretation.
Much about this ambitious evening succeeds but the central issue is that both pieces are very difficult for an untutored ear to appreciate. We do hear the beauty, but it's swamped by so much that crashes, clangs and crushes that it's sometimes hard to locate and always hard to enjoy.
I look forward to seeing more of this company's work in the future - but maybe a little Mozart or Kurt Weill may be an easier "in" for us.