Saturday 27 February 2016

Michel van der Aa's new work demonstrates the power of the imagination in Elephant and Castle

Samuel West - Michel van der Aa 'The Book of Disquiet' - photo London Sinfonietta
Samuel West - Michel van der Aa The Book of Disquiet - photo London Sinfonietta
Michel van der Aa The Book of Disquiet (UK premiere); Samuel West, London Sinfonietta, cond: Joana Carneiro, dir: Michel van der Aa
Reviewed by Ruth Hansford on Feb 24 2016
Star rating: 4.5

Coronet Cinema, Elephant and Castle

During the two-year closure of parts of the Southbank Centre for renovations, its QEH-resident ensemble the London Sinfonietta are touring to new venues including the Southwark Playhouse, the Victoria Line and the Coronet in Elephant & Castle. On 24 February 2016 at the Coronet, the London Sinfonietta, conductor Joana Carneiro, gave the UK premiere of Michel van der Aa's The Book of Disquiet in a production directed by Michel van der Aa, with actor Samuel West and sound projection by Sound Intermedia.

The Coronet has had a varied history since it opened in the 1870s as the Theatre Royal, evolved via a cinema and air-raid shelter to one of the largest night clubs in London with a capacity of 5,000 (we were told), an army of bouncers and a comprehensive drugs and weapons policy. Its future is uncertain because it is in the way of the E&C’s extensive and controversial regeneration (and social-cleansing) activity, but one would hope that the thousands of incoming skyscraper-dwelling residents would be in favour of an arts venue on their doorstep.

The venue is huge inside, and unbelievably draughty. For this event the audience were seated in long rows on the dance floor, with others in the galleries around the sides. The orchestra was on the flat, with a raised stage behind ( and impressive Art-Deco features visible behind and above the set). The set consisted of four large circles, one acting as a backdrop and soundboard for the actor, two as projection screens for the film and one hollow metal one downstage left that turned into a massive, rotating, resonant percussion instrument at the climax of the piece.

Samuel West, London Sinfonietta - Michel van der Aa 'The Book of Disquiet' - photo London Sinfonietta
Samuel West, London Sinfonietta - Michel van der Aa The Book of Disquiet
photo London Sinfonietta
Michel van de Aa’s The Book of Disquiet is described as a ‘music-theatre work’. It had its first performance (in German) in Linz in 2009 and this was its London première. It integrates acoustic music (from 16 members of the London Sinfonietta), video, electronics (Sound Intermedia), and a live monologue here mesmerisingly delivered – or rather inhabited – by the actor/reciter Samuel West. All was held together by the Portuguese conductor Joana Carneiro.

The piece is drawn from unpublished fragments found in a trunk belonging to the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa after his death in 1935. These were random musings of his alter ego the minor functionary Bernando Soares. Pessoa himself was born in 1888 and lived through an extreme period in European history, but his work does not refer to external events – this is a ‘factless autobiography’ with a cast of its protagonist’s imaginary friends, on themes not dissimilar to Proust’s (though less public and less sociable) around identity, travel, imagination and perception. Presumably not intended for an audience, we had a role somewhere between mirror and confessor. The text is hauntingly beautiful to listen to, though one oversight was that the printed programme did not credit the translator.

The orchestra provided a commentary, with soft melancholy strings, rising and subduing anger from the woodwind, trumpet and percussion, and a whole range of emotions in between. The timeless film populated the piece with other characters: a screen version of the protagonist Soares (played by a Portuguese actor who was uncannily like West), his muse Ophelia (played and sung by fado singer Ana Mouro), various Lisbon locals the anti-hero came into contact with, and an ox who walked beside Ophelia through the Portuguese countryside. All added to the indistinct, dreamlike quality of the piece, which was mostly paced so as to give the audience enough space to contemplate the spoken thoughts – though occasionally (and possibly a function of the challenges of the space) things became a little busy at a moment when we wanted to hear the text.

This felt like a beautifully constructed piece, with the elements meshing together in what I felt was an accessible but thought-provoking way, and Samuel West’s depiction of the ‘character in an unwritten novel’ turned it into a piece of theatre. I do hope the Sinfonietta picks up new audiences on its travels too.
Reviewed by Ruth Hansford
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