‘Sleepless’ promenade opera at Cardiff Coal Exchange

17/07/2011

Deazley, The Sleeper: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Welsh National Youth Opera, The Coal Exchange, Cardiff, 15.7.2011 (GPu)

Conductor/Musical Director: Tim Murray
Director: Pete Harris
Movement Director: Ayse Tashkiran
Designer: Rhys Jarman
Lighting Designer: Rachel McCuthceon
Electronic Sound Composer: Rob Whitehead
Assistant Sound Designer: Matt McDade
Vocal Specialist: Miriam Bowen
Repetiteur: Nicola Rose

Cast:

Jamie: David Jones
Sara: Holly-Anna Lloyd
Ella: Emily Griffiths
Sam: Michael Lowe:
Keller: William Helliwell
Somnus: Celine Forrest
Hypnos: Tim Nelson
Police: Hannah Beynon, Debra Finch, Sarah Gilford, Jonathan Robinson
Extra Police: Linda Cleak, Courtney Taylor, Abby Brenchley, Lucy-Ann
Jarvis, Scott Baker, Sarah Davies, Erin Careless, Becky Barnbrook,
Hywel Doswell

Orchestra: Helena Todd, Elizabeth Roberts (violin), Toks Dada (viola)
Alexander Hedley (cello), Jordan Williams (bass), Jack Welch (flute,
Piccolo), Daisy Evans (clarinet, bass clarinet), Philip Howell, William
Edwards (percussion)

The Coal Exchange in Cardiff is a grand structure built in the 1880s to serve as a trading centre for the coal mining industry of South Wales. It would be no exaggeration to say that it was a major player in the financial world of Victorian Britain; it is said that the first business deal worth a million pounds was struck in this very building. It is had its bad times since then, but in recent years it has become a venue for concerts (including performances by, inter alia, Van Morrison, the Stereophonics and the Manic Street Preachers), conferences, parties and other functions. Its history set up a number of ironies when it served as venue for this generally impressive piece commissioned by Welsh National Youth Opera, in a production which was very skilfully and relevantly site-specific.

The Sleeper has a libretto by the distinguished poet Michael Symmons Roberts, set by Stephen Deazley. Perhaps not surprisingly, it was impossible to hear anything like every word of the libretto, but the general outlines were clear enough. Set in a dystopian world, the work’s central fable is of a society in which most people have lost the ability to sleep – a loss encouraged and sustained by the government as a means of control and, no doubt, as a means to extra productivity (the relevance to the Coal Exchange shouldn’t go unnoticed). Robbed of sleep the people are robbed of many of the intimacies of human life, of dreams, of the warmth and privacy of the bed, of familial and sexual intimacies. Instead their lives are lived in 24 hour wakefulness, nerves at breaking point, minds unrestored by sleep. At the beginning of this promenade production the audience were led into a semi-derelict cellar of the Coal Exchange, the scene of a squat, the squatters being young people avoiding the authorities. Unknown to the audience at this point (unless they had read the programme!) one of their number has actually retained the ability to sleep. The young squatters, like the inhabitants of a circle in Dante’s Inferno, interacted edgily and fearfully, beat out agitated rhythms on tin cans, fidgeted painfully, lost their tempers with one another. Some of them wore small torchlights on their foreheads as they led the audience through the darkness, eerily like the helmets of those miners on the exploitative profits of whose labour the Coal Exchange was built. There were some striking theatrical moments here, reinforced by Deazley’s generally edgy music (just occasionally too predictably percussive). Some of the most memorable musical moments came in fractured, yearning lullabies, sung in awareness of their subversive status in this society. The pressures on the squatters increase as one of their number is caught shoplifting and they are made the subject of a police raid, and when a well-dressed woman arrives telling them that she knows there is a ‘sleeper’ amongst them and, ambiguously, offering them help.

The audience were led back outside the Coal Exchange, past posters carrying messages like ‘Keep Awake, By Order of the State’ as a transition between the first and second parts of the production. For that second part, the audience was brought into a splendidly wood-panelled chamber, representing the home of the rich man Hypnos who was offering his help – provided that the identity of the ‘sleeper’ amongst them should be revealed to him, though what his motives were and how far he could be trusted remained unclear. The audience were seated down the two long sides of the rectangular hall, a bed, within a lockable iron cage, on one of the short walls. Hypnos (his daughter Somnus had been his ‘agent’ at the end of the first part) watched a film of his mother sleeping; his house was decorated with nightdresses hanging from the ceiling. When, finally, the sleeper (Ella) identified herself, Hypnos dressed her in a nightdress like that of his mother, placed her in the bed, filmed her, and made her the object of his unwanted sexual attentions. Instinct and sexuality were distorted in this sleepless world, in a kind of displaced Oedipal desire.

This wasn’t a work in which individual singers were given very much chance to shine, being essentially an ensemble piece. When individuals were called on to come to the fore the results were uniformly satisfactory, notably in the persons of Tim Nelson’s Hypnos, Emily Griffiths’s Ella, Celine Forrest’s Somnus and William Helliwell’s Keller. But what was impressive, above all, was the quality of the ensemble singing, which was intense, committed and complemented by a genuine theatricality of movement and gesture of which many more experienced performers might reasonably be envious. The single most memorable moment came at the very end when, forced together into the centre of the hall by the police, the cast sang a final ‘lullay’ which had immense poignancy, a plea and an affirmation, sung out of fear and despair, held up against the power of police and state like a candle against the surrounding darkness. As throughout, the playing of the small instrumental forces was thoroughly effective, well-marshalled by Tim Murray.

Not for the first time, all concerned in a production by WNYO can be properly proud of their abilities and their hard work.

Glyn Pursglove

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