Thursday 14 June 2012

Bow Down

Bow Down isn't exactly an opera, by any stretch of the imagination. But it is a music theatre piece by Harrison Birtwistle and Tony Harrison and as such a new production of it directed by Frederic Wake-Walker is being toured by the Opera Group. The production opened at the Brighton Festival and I caught up with it at the Spitalfields Summer Festival where two performances were given on 13 June, at Village Underground. The venue is a converted warehouse in Shoreditch now used as a performance space and linked to artists studios on the same site, notable for the fact that the studios include a pair of old tube-trains which are perched on top of the building.

Thomas O'Connell, Anita-Joy Uwajeh and Simon Kent in Bow Down by The Opera Group, photo - Simon Jay Price
Thomas O'Connell, Anita-Joy Uwajeh and Simon Kent in Bow Down by The Opera Group, photo - Simon Jay Price
Bow Down was created in 1977 when Harrison Birtwistle was working at the National Theatre during a strike, so that Birtwistle and Harrison created a piece which was simple to stage and required very few resources. It is a devised piece, and the existing score is simply a notation of what was created at that time; performers have a lot of freedom in deciding how and what to perform.  The simplicity of staging has meant that for  his new production Wake-Walker was able to put together a tour which encompassed some very varied spaces, not only the converted warehouse, but an abandoned municipal market in Brighton, a secret forest location in Norfolk and an open air stage.

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
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,

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