BWW Reviews: MANIFEST DESTINY at The Kings Head Theatre, September 18 2011

Ten years on, memories of September 11 2001 are still fresh in the mind. Not the least reason for that freshness was the aesthetic quality of the images produced and bounced around the world on that dreadful day and in its aftermath. The television screens and newspapers captured the awful moments when the planes hit the towers set against an impossibly cloudless blue early Autumn New York sky. Later images, like the mysterious Falling Man and, later, the famous photograph of the hooded prisoner standing, arms outstretched, on a block in a cell at Abu Ghraib, also seared into the brain, as much for their art as for their appalling content. One of the central messages of Keith Burstein's and Dic Edwards' Manifest Destiny 2011, a reworking of their 2003 opera Manifest Destiny (at the King's Head Theatre in rep), addresses the question of whether art can be more powerful than violence in advancing a political cause, or whether art must always be hitched to violence to find the authority it needs in these troubled times.

Leila (Emma Pettemerides), like the 1969 Palestinian hijacker with the same first name, Leila Khaled, bewitches men with her combination of idealistic political fervour, a poet's sensibility and intense beauty. She leaves her artistic partner, Daniel (David Menezes) in London to cope with a world so beset with horror that he is literally losing his ability to see it, and sets off for the mountains of Afghanistan, pursued by Mohammed (Dario Dugandzic) who tracks down the object of his ardour determined to turn her from her path of fighting as a suicide bomber to fighting as a poet. He believes that they will be an example of how love can trump death. His zeal to save Leila from herself lands both of them in Gitmo, where even an initially hostile jailer is soon appreciating her poetry and washing her feet. As in Romeo and Juliet (which inspired elements of the plot) there's no happy ending for the lovers, but Leila's words are not lost and Daniel's sight returns, giving him the resources to build on his newly founded friendship with Mohammed to reach across the Arabic-Jewish divide with art and love.

You'll have discerned that there aren't many laughs in the main storyline, but there is some levity in the portrayals of the President of the USA (Katrina Walters) and the CIA Director (Tom Kennedy), who step straight from the pages of a James Gillray caricature catalogue to satisfy every prejudice of a cookie-cutter anti-American European. But for those who can get hot under the collar about such Yank-bashing in an opera that treats other characters as sensitive, rounded, if ultimately doomed, individuals - it's the artists' choice to do that! As my Gillray reference proves, the politicians and the powerful have been satirised for at least two hundred years (maybe two thousand) and they're still in charge!

The four musicians play beautifully, if rather loudly at times, behind a screen on to which images from a hand-held camera feed are projected, reminding us of the important role that such cameras play in the horrible business of recording martyr videos, filming summary executions or through those images captured by the public on the streets of Manhattan that morning ten years ago. Sitting on the opposite side of the theatre from the screen improves the balance between voices and violins and allows you to see the eerie projections more clearly, so grab a seat on the right.

Manifest Destiny 2011 is a powerful and ambitious work, two characteristics of much of London's Little Opera House's repertoire, but the musicians and singers rise to the challenge, especially Ms Pettemerides, whose vocal pyrotechnics are very impressive and Ms Walters, whose supercharged voice echoes the power of the nation whose Manifest Destiny was once to expand its reach over the continent of North America and that this opera suggests may, two centuries on, wish to see that extended over the entire planet, with those who resist to be dealt with as the Native Americans were on the plains of the Mid-West. Fortunately all this emotion and flitting between the personal and the political is completed in 90 minutes - because that's a hour and a half of an intense combination of music and drama that exhausts and rewards in equal measure. 

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From This Author Gary Naylor