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Friday, 1 July 2016

Vivid ensemble - Stephen McNeff & Olivia Fuchs' Banished at Trinity Laban

Banished, Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance 2016 (Copyright) Lidia Crisafulli
Banished, Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance 2016 (Copyright) Lidia Crisafulli
Stephen McNeff, Olivia Fuchs Banished; Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, director Elaine Kidd, conductor Jessica Cottis; Blackheath Halls
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jun 29 2016
Star rating: 4.5

The story of the first female convicts transported to Australia showcases a fine young ensemble in this stunning new opera

Banished, Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance 2016 (Copyright) Lidia Crisafulli
Banished,
Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music & Dance
2016 (Copyright) Lidia Crisafulli
Banished is a new opera by Stephen McNeff, with a libretto by Olivia Fuchs based on the play Female Transport by Steve Gooch. The opera was written specifically for the students at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance and was premiered by them at Blackheath Halls on Wednesday 30 June 2016. The production was directed by Elaine Kidd, designed by Louie Whitemore, lighting by Ben Ormerod and Jessica Cottis conducted the orchestra of students from Trinity Laban Conservatoire. The cast included Rebekah Smith as Sarah, Lucy Bray as Pitty, Katy Huntley as Winnie, Susanna Buckle as Nance, Rebecca Leggett as Charlotte, Emily Gray as Madge, Laurence Panter as the Captain, Caspar Lloyd James as the Surgeon, Tom McKenna as Sarge and Lars Fischer as Tommy. 

Stephen McNeff has had it in his mind to write an opera based on Steve Gooch's play for some time; he first bought a copy of the play 30 years ago. But it was only when doing a project with students from Trinity Laban in 2013 that the idea really germinated. The project involved the students working on the records about the first women transported to Australia in the 18th century, records which are held at the National Maritime Museum just over the road from the college. The sense of identification between the young students and the young women transported, the feeling that in another era 'this could have been me' helped to project the opera into reality. It has a large number of roles for women (some six female soloists, and a chorus of twelve women with four male soloists), one of the reasons why McNeff was interested in the piece. He points out that, unlike the majority of major roles written for women, the work has a positive end.

Perhaps the closest parallel for McNeff and Fuchs' new opera is Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites, both concentrate on a group of women in harrowing circumstances, and we watch as they draw together with strength. Both operas are written in a sequence of small scenes, with an emphasis on group dynamic. But unlike Poulenc's opera, the women do not die at the end and McNeff and Fuchs have deliberately made the climax, the arrival in Sydney, uplifting and transformative.


Banished, Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance 2016 (Copyright) Lidia Crisafulli
Banished,
Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance
2016 (Copyright) Lidia Crisafulli
Blackheath Halls has a relatively small stage and no pit, so designer Louie Whitemore and director Elaine Kidd placed the performance space in the middle of the main hall. A rectangular performing area was surrounded by audience on three sides and a huge metal gantry divided the fourth side from the orchestra. Extensions to the gantry meant that the crew of the ship could walk round looking down on the women in confinement, and to talk to them they had to descend.

Trinity Laban has no specialist post-graduate opera school so that all of the singers were undergraduates or post-graduates. McNeff wrote with these mainly young voices in mind, solos were relatively short and the imaginative orchestration was not designed to tax voices (full strings but only five woodwind and single horn, trumpet and trombone, plus piano accordion and percussion). The music incorporated a number of folk-songs and traditional songs from the period, woven into the textures. And it was these textures which really struck a chord when listening to the opera. Writing for an ensemble of female voices, McNeff had created a series of striking and fascinating textures, whether evocative and moving, or strident and angry, the writing involved not just singing but humming, shouting and speaking rhythmically. The orchestral writing was similarly enticing, with some lovely moments for solo instruments like the piano accordion.

Banished, Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance 2016 (Copyright) Lidia Crisafulli
Banished,
Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance
2016 (Copyright) Lidia Crisafulli
The plot followed the women from the start of the voyage to the end, and was essentially about how the four men (Captain, Surgeon, Sarge and Tommy) were able to dominate and oppress the women, until a they went on strike in the second half; fighting back and finding a sense of inner resolve and comradeship.

The sense of a vibrant ensemble from the young singers was palpable, each of the women has a very real sense of individual personality and all came together in a striking sense of community. The ensemble moments, from the touching to the angry, were the most striking parts of the evening. All of the female soloists had a small solo moment so that we found out about their backgrounds, whether it be Winnie (Katy Huntley) who has been thieving since the age of six or Pitty (Lucy Bray) who is profoundly disturbed having been abused when younger.

The treatment of the women by the men is deliberately shocking, Sarge (Tom McKenna) has a brutal and cynical way of dealing with them whilst the Surgeon (Caspar Lloyd James) is sympathetic but ineffectual, and the Captain (Laurence Panter) only thinks about his profit. It is left to the new recruit, the young Tommy (Lars Fischer) to develop a sympathy with the women. Some scenes are deliberately disturbing and violent, but these are kept short and we were given a mosaic of impressions, but it was our sympathy with the women which counted for most.

Banished, Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance 2016 (Copyright) Lidia Crisafulli
Banished,
Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance
2016 (Copyright) Lidia Crisafulli
There were no weak links in the cast. Whilst not every voice was fully developed, all the singers had strong theatrical presences and it was impressive how they had developed a real sense of communal spirit. My only real moan is that the words were only intermittently audible. Not every cast member could really get the words over, and it did not help that the performance was in the round. This meant that some of the detail of Olivia Fuchs' libretto was dulled, and we were not always able to follow the characters back histories.

All the women were based on real characters, and to bring this home at the outset each had a small square of cotton bearing their name and crime (often trivial), whilst at the end each bore a square bearing their name and future destiny.

Conductor Jessica Cottis drew a lyrical and dramatic performance from the orchestra, bringing out McNeff's rather fascinating textures. Despite communicating with her cast mainly via monitors, there was no sense of unevenness in the ensembles.

This was a vivid and uplifting evening in the theatre, with the sense of a striking new work being created. All concerned gave a strong ensemble performance, with no sense of first night uncertainty. The opera is being performed at Blackheath Halls until 2 July 2016, but given its strengths and the remarkable range of female roles, I am certainly looking forward to further productions.

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