Saturday 5 September 2009

Tragic Acting (and much more) in Actus Tragicus

"That," remarked someone behind me, as we left the festival theatre, "was the worst thing I've ever seen at the Edinburgh International Festival". I'm not sure I'd go quite that far, after all, Three Sisters was pretty dire back in 2006.

Actus Tragicus was an attempt to take six Bach cantatas (BWV 178, 27, 25, 26, 179 and 106) and string them together into an opera. On the face of it, this is not necessarily a winning strategy but one should always reserve the benefit of the doubt until after witnessing any such attempt. That said, taking Bach works and trying to turn them into an opera is fraught with difficulty, as anyone who witnessed Glydebourne's attempt to stage the Matthew Passion will appreciate.

At least the Matthew Passion has a plot though. Actus Tragicus had none. And, for the first eight minutes or so, it had no music either. The curtain lifted to reveal a dolls house type set that resembled nothing so much as a cheap Ikea book case. One by one the cast filed on and went about their business. In silence. It was not compelling. After four minutes I was bored watching a transvestite ironing a shirt, by eight I was well and truly alienated. I was also thinking that they need to watch out that John Cage doesn't sue them.

In some respects silence might have been preferable. Staatsoper Stuttgart were not, I sincerely hope, at their finest hour. The orchestra, under Michael Hofstetter, was lacklustre at best, with misjudged entries or out of co-ordination with the singers at worst. A friend who loves his Bach far more than I do once remarked that the composer's work should swing. Certainly it should contain a good deal more drama and passion than Hofstetter was capable of locating. Things weren't hugely better with the singers, who were a fairly unimpressive bunch, and, as noted, not always well co-ordinated.

I may not have been utterly swept over by Gardiner's Bach (review to follow) but there was no faulting his sense of the dramatic, and the artistry of his ensemble was on quite simply another level to this.

They acted their way through the same eight minute day we'd had in silence over and over again (one character pulling day numbered calendar sheets off the wall and discarding them on the floor - at one point he flicked forward to 364 and I had an horrific vision of purgatory). Apparently it was all meant to say how monotonous life is. Well, perhaps for director Herbert Wernicke this was the case, but I don't personally spend my entire life doing the ironing, I manage to have plenty of fun and interest as well (incidentally, the counter-tenor in drag who spent an hour and a half attempting to iron a shirt would probably have better luck if they actually used the steam function). It was hard to feel sorry for the woman condemned to sweep the stairs for eternity since she evidently did so so badly.

On the other hand, if this was all about monotony, it was a little unclear why we had a woman perpetually (and with a staggering lack of passion) abandoning her wedding dress, which is surely not an everyday occurrence, even if you're Elizabeth Taylor, and to judge from her acting she was not.

By the end one even began to feel sorry for the lovers perpetually stuck between first and second base. Indeed, the only, what for want of a better word I shall call character, I felt the slightest empathy with, was the smartly dressed man who kept checking his watch. I knew precisely how he felt. Indeed, at one point he made the mistake of altering the clock on stage to the correct time, and we were reminded just how much more we had to endure. That it seemed to move so slowly indicates just how trying this was.

Other things were downright bizarre - the man who daily hung himself or the caricature secret agent. Then there was the woman in white mask and gloves who seemed to signify death. One kept hoping she might actually become significant in a dramatic sense. She did not.

The whole mess seemed nicely summed by the man who spent the whole time going round measuring things with his folding ruler (a beautiful piece of engineering which he then proceeded to break) who, at one point, sang:

They go, indeed, into God's House
And there perform their superficial duties,
But does this make a Christian?
No, hypocrites can do the same.

It was a verse loaded with irony. You can, Messers Mills, Wernicke and Hofstetter, string a load of music together and get some people on stage to sing and play it, but as you comprehensively proved this evening, that most certainly does not make it opera. To steal from Blackadder, it was much like a broken pencil: utterly pointless.

Applause was, initially, decidedly lukewarm. If I was cynical I would suggest there were plants or friends in the audience, since a few moments later things were bouyed by loud a few very enthusiastic wolf-whistlers. Still, amongst us five, there was a rare unity of opinion.

(Actually, my mildly narcoleptic sister does note one positive: you can fall asleep and wake up at any point without feeling at all lost. There are few shows about which this can be said.)


Anonymous said...

Funny you should mention Gardiner (whose superb gig I also attended on Thursday) - he was sitting a few rows in front of me in the festival theatre, and seemed distinctly unimpressed, continually peering down at the orchestra pit presumably to see whether or not there was actually a conductor present. I don't blame him - on several occasions said conductor was simply unable to keep everything together.

Call me a music snob, but the singing and playing was a huge disappointment. To be fair to them, the acoustic was extremely dry and unforgiving, and ensemble singing can't be easy on a set like that. This doesn't excuse, however, the awful operatic wobbling, frequent bum notes, and total lack of "drive" from the orchestra (or swing, as your friend aptly puts it).

Thank god for the superb Bach at Greyfriars series which was utterly fabulous from start to finish!

Tam Pollard said...

Brilliant story - thank you!

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