|Thomas O'Connell, Anita-Joy Uwajeh and Simon Kent in Bow Down by The Opera Group, photo - Simon Jay Price|
The production used a cast of seven young performers; Mana Shibata is a Japanese oboist, Rehana Browne is studying flute at the Royal Academy of Music, Simon Kent trained at the Academy of Live and Recorded Arts, Thomas O'Connell graduated from Arts Educational Schools this year, Anita-Joy Uwajeh is a member of Southwark Playhouse Young Company, Yolande Mercy recently graduated from Trinity Laban Conservatoire and Benjamin Mahns-Mardy is a graduate of Trinity Laban Conservatoire.
All were required to sing, act and play instruments. Any music was provided by the performers themselves, in this case mainly flute, oboe and quite a lot of percussion and drumming, plus of course singing.
Bow Down tells the classic folk-talk of two sisters in love with same man. The Dark Sister drowns the Fair Sister, but the Fair Sister's body is found and turned into a musical instrument which accuses the Dark Sister. As such it is akin to the folk-tale which Mahler used in Das Klagende Lied. Harrison's text conflates a variety of variants of the story including one in Middle English which, sung by a blind harper, sort of starts and finishes the show.
What we get is not a single telling, but a multiple one, with the elements of the plot gone over in a variety of ways, seeing the story from different directions. A technique which those people familiar with Birtwistle's music will recognise, though Bow Down uses very simple musical resources its structure resembles many other of Birtwistle's pieces.
The cast took on a variety of roles and jumped in and out of characters. Generally Uwajeh and Mercy played the two sisters with Shibata and Browne taking on more mysterious roles. The men commented and discovered the body of the Fair Sister.
Wake-Walker and designer Anna Jones, set the piece in an around a distorted (but functional) children's merry go round with a variety of found objects scattered about, to be used during the performance. Apart from Shibata's oboe, Browne's flute and some drums, many of the found objects were used as percussion instruments (include a pair of spades).
|Simon Kent in Bow Down by The Opera Group, photo - Simon Jay Price|
In a sense we were watching a group of young people hanging around a childrens playground and acting out stories. As is the way with such acting out, it became dangerous, sexy and threatening. Bow Down is not an easy piece, Wake-Walker and his cast brilliantly realised the way that such 'acting out' can turn real and shocking in a moment. There was comedy too. The scene where the two men discover the Fair Sister's body had that mixture of bawdy comedy and seriousness which is familiar from the mystery plays.
There were one or two moments when the language moved to modern demotic, rather different from Harrison's voice, which seemed to suggest additions from the performers that stood out a bit, but I might be wrong.
The performance space was surrounded by seats on three sides so that the performers were very much surrounded by audience and at times wandered amongst us to unnerving and threatening effect. But the seven actors were vividly involved only with themselves, creating very much the effect that we were eavesdropping on something rather private and not a little shocking.
I attended the early evening performance; 55 minutes after it finished the hard working cast were going to have to do it all again.
Bow Down is a piece which doesn't quite fit into any category.I have to admit that initially I found the piece a little contrived and rather of its period, but gradually it gripped and the cast brought out an intense visceral quality which was ultimately rather thrilling. The cast were uniformly brilliant and supremely intense in an almost unnerving way. This was Wake-Walker's first production for the Opera Group since he took over as artistic director, a stunning debut.
The event was part of the Spitalfields Summer Festival which runs until 2012.
Box Office: 020 7377 0287, www.spitalfieldsmusic.org.uk