Sunday 11 December 2016

Epic Theatre? Heloise Werner in Scenes from the End

Heloise Werner - Scenes from the End - photo Nick Rutter
Heloise Werner - Scenes from the End
photo Nick Rutter
Jonathan Woolgar Scenes from the End; Heloise Werner, Emily Burns; Tristan Bates Theatre
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Dec 10 2016
Star rating: 3.5

Challenging one-woman music theatre piece addressing universal issues

Scenes from the End is a striking piece of music theatre which has returned to London following a successful run at the Edinburgh Fringe. Written by Jonathan Woolgar (words and music) and performed by Heloise Werner, the work is a one-woman opera in the tradition of pieces such as Judith Weir's King Harald's Saga. We caught the final performance of the London run, on 10 December 2016 at the Tristan Bates Theatre, directed by Emily Burns with lighting by Abigail Waller.

Lasting around 45 minutes Scenes from the End deals with epic topics, the death of the Universe, the end of Humanity and the death of an individual. It was presented as Brechtian epic theatre, just a black box with table and chair, plus a few portable percussion instruments and projected captions providing the only context. The performer was simply Heloise Werner. The Tristan Bates Theatre is not the most ideal space for the show, for the first section (the death of the Universe), Werner's performance was accompanied by the distant (and not so distant) thumping from a disco sound track at a neighbouring bar, and the final sequence (lamenting the death of an individual) had wails and raucous laughter from the street as counterpoint. The space is also rather too resonant, lacking any set or soft furnishings, so that the louder moments verged on the painful and the acoustic very much occluded Werner's diction.

Werner sang and played percussion, as well as using body percussion and extra-musical vocal effects, no to mention duetting with her pre-recorded self. But the musical element was only one part of the performance, hence my referring to it as music theatre. It was Werner's complete performance which mattered, with the music only one part of a complex whole. And this was very much epic theatre, we were offered no context for the performance, it was here and now, and the different sections of the piece were indicated by texts projected on the wall, as well as projected quotations from notable writers.

In addition to Brecht, other references occurred to me as well. We had a Cathy Berberian Stripsody moment, whilst Stockhausen's In the sky I am walking seemed another important influence.

That it worked at all was due to Heloise Werner's mesmerising performance; she was a very committed and immensely vibrant. But I wanted more context, I wanted the music to tell me more. We were never offered a reason why, and even the final section lamenting the death of an individual lacked context with Woolgar's vocal writing being restricted to inarticulate keening. The result was that we lacked an emotional connection with the material, and relied entirely on our connection to the performer herself.

I also wanted the piece to either be more daring and display the de-constructive inventiveness that I have seen at the Bastard Assignments events, or to use a more structured approach to the music so that the music itself was more satisfying. Too often I found the musical material seemed to be only one or two steps up from musical improvisation.

This was an enormously challenging and daring piece, and I have only admiration for Heloise Werner in both initiating it and bringing it off, but I only wished her performance had been in the context of a more dramatically satisfying piece.

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