Three Choirs Festival 2011 (6) – Elgar makes a personal appearance

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Peter Sutton’s Elgar and Alice: Swan Theatre, Worcester, 11.8.2011. (RJ)

Elgar was a regular visitor during his lifetime to the Three Choirs Festival, and his musical presence is still felt. This Festival, for instance, saw performances of both Caractacus and The Dream of Gerontius in his home city of Worcester. He even returned to the festival in person – or rather in the person of John Horton who portrayed the composer so convincingly in a revival of Peter Sutton’s play, first performed on Elgar’s 150th anniversary in 2007.

The work explores the tensions in the marriage between Elgar and his wife Alice as the latter faces up to death. A composer with a chip on his shoulder like Elgar cannot have been an easy man to live with, and in the play he comes over as a grumpy, self-obsessed character prone to making hurtful remarks as he recalls the past. He is frustrated that he has achieved so little and blames his father for sending him to work for a solicitor rather than encouraging to compose. He describes Pomp and Circumstance I  as “circus music” and is utterly dismissive of Alice’s poems.

Alice manages stoically to put up with his outbursts, accepting that theirs was “a marriage of minds rather than hearts”. There were other women in his life, his “muses” and she is clearly miffed by the fact that her husband preferred to confide in others rather than herself. She thrusts a collection of letters she has discovered from Lady Alice Stuart-Wortley (Windflower) as evidence.

This other Alice makes an appearance in the first act of the play, and in her presence Elgar is completely transformed. He finds he is able to share his thoughts with her; they look through the window and he describes the view in musical terms which she quickly cottons on to. “Music is all around us,” he declares. Sutton contrasts this episode with Elgar’s unsuccessful efforts to explain the enigma of The Enigma Variations to Alice his wife. But despite their inability to see eye to eye on many matters, it is evident that the great composer would not have succeeded without Lady Elgar’s persistence and support. “Did you love me?” she asks. The answer lies in the play.

Elgar and Alice is an absorbing work which gives an insight not only into the Elgar’s married life but also into the workings of the artistic mind. Peter Sutton’s portrayal of his characters bore the stamp of authenticity, the result of much painstaking research, and he weaves many of Elgar’s own words into the text. John Horton playing Sir Edward certainly looks the part and portrays the bluff, irascible composer with great skill, while Julie Hobbs gives a sympathetic portrayal of the long-suffering Lady Elgar. Liz Grand playing Lady Alice Stuart-Wortley is suitably muse-like while Gabrielle Bullock as Sarah Allen was everything a maid/companion should be – sympathetic, consoling and discreet.

Though I doubt whether Elgar would have approved of having his relationships dissected in this way – none of us would – the venue for the performance would have been just up his street. Elgar was a keen race-goer and the theatre is right next to Worcester race-course. Also the play was directed by a Mr Chris Jaeger,- but as far as I could ascertain he is not a descendant of Elgar’s publisher of that name immortalised as Nimrod in The Enigma Variations. This play deserves to find a larger audience in all places where Elgar’s music is performed and appreciated.

Roger Jones