February 25, 2007, by Peter Kirwan
Nothing Like The Sun (RSC/Opera North) @ The Courtyard Theatre
Considering this is the ‘Complete Works’ Festival, it seems an appropriate time to point out that that doesn’t mean every word Shakespeare ever wrote. None of his commendatory poems or prefixes are being performed, for example. His famous epitaph (‘Cursed be he that moves these bones’, chilling) stays on his grave. More prominently, neither ‘A Lover’s Complaint’ or ‘The Passionate Pilgrim’ are anywhere to be seen- and, as I’ve already complained, both ‘Sir Thomas More’ and ‘Edward III’ have been brushed aside. And then, there are the sonnets. Of 154, tonight’s event (running for two days only in the Courtyard) performs a grand total of thirteen. Add 141 sonnets, including ‘Shall I Compare Thee…’ to the list of ignored works.
Not that I think this is a bad thing, mind. Poems don’t necessarily lend themselves readily to performance, and as thirteen poems took two hours to get through, I dread to think how numb I’d be after sitting through 24 hours worth. More to the point, the small number of selections allowed tonight’s ensemble to perform each one properly, taking time with instrumentals, voices and film projections to fully realise their artistic vision.
Curated by Gavin Bryars, a bass player, this project fell into two halves, both performed by a classical ensemble and two opera singers. The first section saw five sonnets set to music by guest composers. Natalie Merchant set Sonnet 47, a relatively quiet and classically based piece. Alexander Balescu took Sonnet 43, creating a discordant and oddly-jarring piece which I have to admit I didn’t enjoy at all- one of those pieces which sound out of tune until you realise it’s meant to sound like that. The third piece, Sonnet 130, was set by the experimental Mira Galix, who has played with Radiohead among others. Typically, her sonnet was full of echoing phrases, electronic gurgling and spoken word mixed together, including a gorgeous glockenspiel break.
The fourth sonnet was set by one of the chief attractions (for me) of the event- Gavin Friday, who performed the sonnet himself. Friday is an old-school friend of Bono and the rest of U2, and has performed with them on and off over the last 25 years, as well as producing his own work including a spectacular reinterpretation of ‘Peter and the Wolf’. He turned Sonnet 40 into a moody lounge number, half-singing, half-speaking the words until he reached the final couplet, for which he transferred to a falsetto as he sung over and over “Kill me with spites, kill me with spites” as he walked off the stage and the music faded away. Writing about music is something I find nearly impossible, but it made everything in me tingle.
The final sonnet was set by Antony, of Antony and the Jonsons, and his regular collaborator Nico Muhly, and was a freer piece, initially piano-led before descending into a melee of instrumentation. Before each of these sonnets, one of two RSC actors read the poem. Nina Sosanya, the actress, chose to simply read her poems, and for some reason struggled with Sonnet 40, stumbling over the words and having to restart a line once. Richard Dillane, by contrast, was all charm, and his reading of Sonnet 130 (‘My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun’) had the whole audience laughing as he struggled to compliment his lady.
The second half was a sequence of eight sonnets, all set as one long piece with movements by Gavin Bryars. Friday read the poems in a low voice from a microphone downstage, and was then followed by the singers singing it back to him. The sonnets chosen, for the completists, were 60, 123, 128, 94, 102, 146, 55 and 64- a relatively dark selection, which around 146 took a turn into some very moody, and bass-led, music.
It’s difficult to write about music, and to be completely honest I don’t know that much about it. During the long second half, my attention did occasionally wander. The music itself was very nice, but lacked drama, or any really interesting presentation. It was accompanied by a film installation, showing slow-motion images of leaves, candles, water being splashed, a tablecloth being flipped, etc.- all very nice images, but they didn’t appear to have any relevance to what was being performed, and seemed about as conventionally ‘arty’ as is possible to be- again, art-film isn’t something I know much about. It seems a shame, because I thorougly enjoyed the music, but I was disappointed (especially after the first half, which really varied its styles, voices and movement) that the second half was so static.
I’d be interested to know how this is received on tour, outside of the Complete Works context. Within the Festival, it was an interesting curio, with at least one moment of exceptional beauty, and certainly an innovative way of approaching the sonnets. I think, though, that the drama inherent in the sonnets, the dialogues and stories, are well worth investigating in themselves, and an opportunity may have been missed to really open up the sonnets to dramatic interpretation in the way that ‘The Rape of Lucrece’ and ‘The Phoenix and the Turtle’ did.
Nonetheless, it was a very pleasant evening. And many, many thanks to the lovely lady sitting in front of me, Jennifer, who heard me worrying about having to wait two hours for a bus and offered me a much-appreciated lift back to Leamington. Stratford theatregoers are so nice!
The Sonnets Project came to Nottingham last night, and thought you might like to hear my own reactions, after about weeks of speculation and expectation.
Reading through your review of the Stratford performance I’m surprised that many of your reactions matched my own feelings. I thoroughly enjoyed the first – Sonnet 73 – and thought it managed to convey the feeling of autumn very well (kept picturing falling leaves, yellow, golden). The second (Sonnet 43) very nearly conjured up drowsy state of sleep, but not quite. Sonnet 130 I felt odd in the way it tried to depict the coarse mistress grating along, and I’m not sure the electronic sounds fit the music well enough. I think other audience responded in the same way – I heard a fee ‘Hmm…’ in the silence after it closed. Gavin Friday’s performance of Sonnet 40 was immediately framed by the warm red glow of a late-night lounge, which somewhat softened his performance, creating a moody atmosphere that intensified towards the end. He really did make his presence felt onstage, and his walking away during the closing bars completely suited the subsiding music, as if it had to be carefully wrapped up and put away in a safe place. However I think this cast an empty mood onto the last piece before the interval – Sonnet 27 (I honestly can’t remember much about it).
It seemed that the audience was very expectant after this foray into experimentation, and I had definitely enjoyed the variety so far. This meant however that the second half did feel lacking in movement. Gavin Friday recited the Sonnets before they were sung, but his voice seemed too oppressive, perhaps even self-indulgent and I was hoping that they would bring back the RSC actor from the first half (the programme lists Richard Dillane, although it also lists Nina Sosanya who wasn’t actually there, so they could have easily commissed someone else). Together with the slow-motion film installation that had no connection with the performance it really did seem like an arthouse film put together to seem “profound”. But the music itself held itself together well, and I especially appreciated the range of the voices, though it was definitely hampered by Friday’s recitation (I was consciously blocking the film), and each piece could have benefitted from simple breaks in the music. So this was why I felt bored at places, and I was very aware that everyone else had started fidgeting a lot more than during the first half.
The whole thing finished at around 10.10pm, and I overheard a few comments of varying degrees of praise, from “I love his [Friday’s] voice – fantastic” and “I liked the first half better”, to “I almost fell asleep” and “What a waste of time, I could have just stayed at home and read the Sonnets myself”. And coming outside we had a clear view of the eclipse of the moon. I overheard a lady say to her friend “oh look, there’s something going on outside that’s a lot more interesting.”
Overall though, I thought it was a brave Project that explored the themes using an array of modern talent. I’m not familiar with the rest of the Complete Works Festival, but as a single event it did show that experimentation with the Sonnets can be successful, and I agree that it’s worth investigating. If the Prokect had only consisted in setting to music from Shakespeare’s own era it would have surely failed.
And finally, I really admired Jim Holmes, the musical director, for being able to hold all the parts together, a lot of the time playing the piano whilst simultaneously conducting with meaningful nods of the head. I also thought it was a nice touch to leave violins out of the ensemble – it helped the rest create a great mood (I thought a shadowy grey colour) that seemed consistent throughout.