Tuesday 24 April 2012

Sonata Movements: an experiment in "concert theatre"

Words and music haven’t always got on too well.  In spoken theatre and film, music always plays the supporting role.  Song makes words into music.  In opera (particularly the baroque ones), you could remove most of the words and still be in the same place.  But what if the abstraction of one coexisted with the concrete of the other?  If we could take great works of the classical instrumental repertoire and partner them to great drama, what would the effect be? 

Photo: Dougie Firth

This is a question that pianist An-Ting Chang tackles, together director Jude Christian, in Sonata Movements, an AT Concert Theatre production at Camberwell's Blue Elephant Theatre.  Chang has carefully matched works by Schubert, Chopin, Prokofiev and Beethoven with four dramatic scenes.  The music - sometimes fragmented but often flowing – sits beside the drama, wrapping itself around its characters and text.   Rather than distract from the action, it fits immaculately with the unfolding drama and Sonata Movements' actors respond to Chang's live performance with effortless sensitivity.

Each scene regards the music it partners slightly differently.  Abortive, Caryl Churchill's 1971 radio play, connects small musical gestures with words: "When the phone rings" is spoken seconds before the reappearance of the disquieting trilling figure that haunts the first movement of Schubert final Piano Sonata, D.960; we hear "dropped away" as Schubert's bass modulates downwards.  It could be a cheap effect, but actors Tiffany Wood and Mark Denham never break their flow to signpost it; it is simply a point of contact between words and notes, there to be found if we wish.

Darren Douglas-Letts's kindhearted teenager argues with his own incidental music (Chopin), disputing its version of his story in Kenneth Emson's Other People's Gardens.  His William watches aged Sylvia (Mary Sheen) sitting alone in her home; Chang's use of snatches of Chopin's piano works reveals a humor few would guess the Polish composer's music possessed.  T.S. Eliot's Portrait of a Lady resounds to the spiky tumult of Prokofiev's 3rd Piano Sonata while James Northcote's topped hatted bachelor remonstrates with its disruptions as though music and pianist were another character in the room, undermining his argument.

Finally, Jonathan Newth's veteran actor Svetlovidov, sozzled and sorrowful, recalls his past theatrical glories in Chekhov's 'dramatic etude' Swan Song.  The awed and enamored theatre-prompt Nikitushka spurs on his reenactment of his greatest roles - Lear, Hamlet, Boris Godunov - to the actor's mounting delight.  Chang brings to the surface fragments of Beethoven sonata movements - a literature to match Svetlovidov's fine repertoire - and the actor turns to the music, as though drawing on his own inner monologue to find inspiration.

Newth's actor is the final delight in a series of outstanding performances, brought even more alive by The Blue Elephant's petite but resonant space.  Each piece uncovers a little more of the stage: the man and woman of Abortive confined to - and divided by - the covered piano; Other People's Gardens placing its characters on either side of the room; finally, Swan Song giving Svetlovidov full reign of his actorly domain.  Always present is the piano: companion, commentator and conversationalist.  Chang and Christian, together with their actors, have created a genuine blend of both arts, sensitive to the demands of music and drama and genuinely illuminating of both.

Sonata Movements continues at Blue Elephant Theatre, London, until  5th May.


Anonymous said...

After reading your review, I actually went to the performance, and I like it quite a lot.
I also agree with your opinion on stage design. I think the design is great because it brings different plays together by having a common element into individual sets.

Andrew Morris said...

Thank you for your comment! Glad to have inspired someone to give it a try.

Good to have your thoughts on the stage design. It was nice how new parts of the set were revealed by removing the cloths, wasn't it? And how Nikitushka then used one of the big cloths to improvise her own set. Thanks for reading!