Monday 4 May 2015

Why does the Queen die?

Why does the Queen die?
Iain Burnside Why does the Queen die?; dir:Iain Burnside; Guildhall School of Music and Drama
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on May 2 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Iain Burnside's imaginative interweaving of Schubert's life and songs

Iain Burnside's new play Why does the Queen die? was commissioned by the Oxford Lieder Festival and performed there by a cast from Guildhall School of Music and Drama in October 2014, and they have now brought the production home to the Studio Theatre at Milton Court (seen Saturday 2 May 2015) where it was performed by a young cast with Edward Liddall as Franz Schubert, Matthew Palmer as Josef von Spaun, Jonathan Hyde as Franz von Schober, Pierre Riley as Anselm Hüttenbrenner, Adam Sullivan as Johann Mayrhofer, Thomas Isherwood as Moritz von Schwind, Jessica Dandy as Gisela, Bianca Andrew as Lotte, Judy Brown as Silke, Ines Lorans as Karoline Esterhazy and Adrian Thompson as Johann Michael Vogl. Iain Burnside directed, with design by Aaron Marsden and Catherine Morton.

As Iain Burnside explains in a video on YouTube, the piece interleaves Schubert songs with vignettes from Schubert's life from 1815 to 1828. There is a lot that we don't know about Schubert and his life, and this was a remarkable dramatic portrait combining both life and songs. This was very much Schubert seen through the eyes of his friends (many of whom were writers and artists rather than musicians) with gossip about servant girls, nights at the Crown Inn, sausage parties and a dislike of the gloomy late songs. Much of Schubert's piano music (solo and duet) played by Pierre Riley, Edward Liddell and Ines Lorans underscored the scenes, and this along with the songs served to suggest Schubert's darker side. Some songs were woven into the narrative at Schubertiade type events, or when he distinguished older tenor Vogl (Adrian Thompson) came round. Some were slotted between the narrative, as comment, such as late on suggesting Mayrhofer's strong feelings for Schubert, or a lullaby sung to the dying Schubert by all the cast. The strange and powerful Der Zwerg was subjected to almost an analysis in a tour de force by Adrian Thompson as Vogl, and the song gave the whole play its title.

Cast of Why does the Queen die? - Milton Court Studio Theatre
Cast of Why does the Queen die?
This was very much a group effort, as I have said three pianists (playing Schubert, Huttenbrenner and Karoline Esterhazy) shared the piano accompaniments with Ines Lorans also singing. Songs were generally performed in ensemble, with verses shared out. Edward Liddall as Schubert spoke and played though he never sang; he had a quiet manner whilst successfully suggesting the darkness underneath only to be released in the music. His fey, slightly camp manner suggested that his friends surmises about servant girls might have been wide of the mark.

Directed by Iain Burnside himself, the piece vividly conveyed the young student-y milieu that Schubert lived in, and how it changed as individuals got older and took real jobs. The setting and dialogue were pretty much modern (Lemsip and electric kettles) but with the odd archaicism (they danced formal dances to Schubert's music) and the setting made a lot of the contemporary drawings of Schubert and his friends.

All concerned gave a strong ensemble performance, creating a very natural feeling for the young people's banter, but also with a fabulous exploration of the darker side to the songs. This was a very absorbing evening, lasting around 80 minutes; and enchanting yet thoughtful evening.
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