Thursday 12 June 2014

The madness of Clive: Gestalt Opera at Peckham Asylum

Gestalt Arts: A Sign in Space with Felicity Turner - Photo Andreas Grieger
A Sign in Space with Felicity Turner - Photo Andreas Grieger
Clive and other stories: Gestalt Arts: Peckham Asylum
Reviewed by Hilary Glover on Jun 09 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Three short new operas by adventurous new opera company

Gestalt Arts was founded two years ago as a brave new opera company by Artistic Director Ruth Mariner and Toby Young when they produced 'The daisy chain' for the London Symphony Orchestra Soundhub and Tête a Tête Opera Festival. With young experimental composers, musicians and performers, Gestalt Arts are interested in becoming a community of like-minded people capable of producing new works of opera and experimental music theatre. The audience was also testament to this, being predominantly a good 40 years younger than at the Royal Opera House.

'Clive and other stories' is their first event this year and they collaborated with art directors Studio Boo to make the most of their tiny performance space in Peckham Asylum and realise a creatively professional and consistent visual interpretation of the music.

Peckham Asylum
Peckham Asylum
Peckham Asylum was the perfect choice of venue for this event. From the outside it looks like part of a terrace, but on this inside the years of neglect lend a grand yet forlorn appearance. Peeling paint and plaster, faded decoration, and partially broken down walls all added to the general ambience and contrasted with the rather magnificent stained glass windows.

'A Sign in Space', composed by Nick Morrish Rarity and Tim Morrish, set text by Arthur Sawbridge and starred Felicity Turner as the slightly creepy (angelic) narrator, and Benjamin Williamson and Dan D'Souza as Q and K, her two creations. There were also two non-singing roles who held out the skirts/wings of the narrator as she watched her creations discover themselves and the world. The whole time the men were singing these blue people and the narrator watched K and Q intently.

The music was lovely – I could have quite happily just listened to this – minimal with accordion and electronic effects. The composer used lots of different sounds and required lots of extended techniques from the orchestra – but it all fit together. The lighting and costumes were also clever - at the beginning the flickering of lights matched the barely there violin. The light effects were integral to the story - later on a dramatic influx of light, matched by the music, caused a big reaction from the performers.

In between the operas, while people were turning their chairs around, the orchestra played two interludes by Toby Young. The first was neo classical Stravinsky in style, the second had some ideas which sounded Coplandesque and a lovely tuneful section near the end – but this was background for the audience relocating and chatting, so it was hard to hear them clearly.

Gestalt Arts: Clive with Jack Lawrence-Jones and Camilla Bull - Photo Andreas Grieger
Clive with Jack Lawrence-Jones and Camilla Bull - Photo Andreas Grieger
'Clive' was composed by Ben Ashby, libretto Mathew Lee Knowles and looked at the nature of mental illness and the failings of a medical system. Clive (Jack Lawrence-Jones) was sat behind red bars constructed of newspaper. The tags used to tie the bars together looked a bit like thorns, and matched his angry and violent descent. The first section of the opera was dedicated to his pacing, counting, and repeatedly touching floors and walls to the accompaniment of a single violin and it became obvious that the cell (the altar alcove) was a hospital room where he was kept locked up.

Alexa Mason was very powerful as the sister, a dark apparition that crept from behind the chair. An apparition of Clive's mind, her outburst of obscenities and violence seemed to be driving him into catatonia – until he strangled the nurse and you realise that she was an aspect of his damaged mind.

Camilla Bull, as the nurse, and Oliver Brignall, who played the guard and provided the disembodied voice at the end, struck the right tone with their ineffectual characters, unaware that Clive was not taking his medication and was a danger to them and himself. Their lumpy costumes added a Salvador Dalí- like surrealist touch.

Gestalt Arts: Adrift  with Maud Miller and Oliver Brignall - Photo Andreas Grieger
Adrift  with Maud Miller and Oliver Brignall - Photo Andreas Grieger
The final opera of the set was 'Adrift' – music by Ed Scolding, text by Shaun Gardiner. The simple staging with people providing the waves on which a raft sat was very effective and Grace Nyandoro (who sang the sun and moon) slowly traversed the sky to provide a day and a night for the action to take place.

Maud Miller and Oliver Brignall played a man and a woman adrift after a disaster at sea with their baby. Beyond that I was a little lost myself - at one point I think they received food and water from passing journalists, but no one saved them. The music was a little louder than their singing which made the words difficult to hear. Despite this the anguish and despair of the couple came across very clearly.

In general the singers were young, and had yet to find the vocal power that sustains more experienced singers and fills huge opera houses, but nevertheless they coped admirably with the challenging (to perform) music and made the stories come alive. I would definitely be interested to see what this company will do next.

Ventures like Gestalt Arts should be encouraged because they risks and are more adventurous than the big opera houses dare to be. Not only does it give young performers a chance to spread their wings, it gives composers the opportunity to find their feet and try something new, and for all the associated people to find creative solutions to problems inherent with low budget. It is places like this that we should look for tomorrow's mainstream.

Reviewed by Hilary Glover

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1 comment:

  1. The drinks were good and the food was divine. Then there was the view, really beautiful. I only wish we could go back there for dinner on our anniversary.
    Wedding location in Chicago


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