New Play Focuses on Britten and Rimbaud

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Iain Burnside, Journeying Boys: Royal College of Music Vocal Faculty. Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music, London, 8.2.2013 (MB)

Arthur Rimbaud – Peter Kirk
Djami, Sanjit – Oscar Castellino
Gaubert, Milo – Nicholas Pritchard
Paul Verlaine – Matthew Buswell
Ernest Cabaner, Fletcher – Paul McKenzie
Beauchene, Trevor – Simon Gilkes
Florence, A, Caroline – Elizabeth Holmes
Mathilde Maute, Alex – Rowan Pierce
Mme Maute, Daisy, I – Rachel Bowden
E, Lavinia – Jennifer Carter
O, Imogen – Anna Anandarajah
U, Cheryl – Soraya Mafi
Benjamin Britten – Matthew Ward
W H Auden – Jerome Konx
Christopher Isherwood, Gus – Nicholas Morton
Lavinia – Jennifer Carter
Iain Burnside (director)
Giuseppe Belli (set designs)
Stephen Pelton (director)
Jools Osborns (costumes)
Paul Tucker (lighting)

Photo Credit Royal College of Music
Photo Credit Royal College of Music

Iain Burnside’s new play, apparently ‘conceived over a club sandwich’ taken with Nick Sears, Head of Vocal Studies at the Royal College of Music, is focused upon Britten’s Les Illuminations, though with a stronger emphasis on the poet Arthur Rimbaud than upon the composer himself. In fact, it darts around quite a bit, between a performance class for young singers, thus very much ‘at home’ in the RCM, snippets from Rimbaud’s life, and a few from Britten’s. Correspondence and history are mined without any sense of pedantry. Quite what it all adds up to remained a little unclear to me; the effect was in a sense determinedly, if un-theoretically, post-modern. But the business of artistic creation and re-creation is rarely linear, so the fragments of history and interpretative wisdom we hear in the singing class suffer little and arguably gain a form of truth from their interspersal with scenes from Rimbaud’s ultra-bohemian existence, scenes that take us to Marseilles, Harar in Abyssinnia, Aden, Mons, London, and Paris. Verlaine comes and foes, even having a short family scene to himself, with his long-suffering wife, her mother, and a non-speaking part for the young Achille(-Claude) Debussy at the piano. Rimbaud’s defiant, excessive non-metropolitan personality – his northern-ness much commented upon here – contrasts with the diffident young Britten we glimpse from time to time, Auden and Isherwood attempting to bring him out of himself. Much is made of poet’s and composer’s sexuality, both in their scenes and in the class discussion, a running joke provided by one female student whose comment upon every aspect of the work is that it shows how ‘queer’ the text is. As a banal coda, she persuades a fellow female student to join her for a Marks and Spencer ready meal after the class: knowing banality, perhaps, but I am not sure what it added. Nor was I really convinced that we needed a spoken chorus of vowels, A, E, I, O, and U during a few of Rimbaud’s scenes; we gained a commendable sense of his linguistic interests in any case. Nevertheless, at seventy-five minutes, the play was enjoyable and certainly did not overstay its welcome.

Performances were assured, both in terms of acting and singing. Indeed for a group of young singers who are not primarily actors their stage presence was most impressive. (The ‘movement’ seemed largely unnecessary, though.) Peter Kirk threw himself wholeheartedly into the role of Rimbaud; Matthew Ward, Jerome Knox, and Nicholas Morton, all proved convincing in their snatches of Britten, Auden, and Isherwood. And so it went on: the students offered strong characterisation as well as some fine singing. Indeed, I could not name a weak link in the cast. As well as Les Illuminations (extracts performed here in Britten’s own piano reduction), we also heard from four Verlaine settings, Debussy’s Cheveaux de bois, Vaughan Williams’s The Sky above the Roof, Fauré’s Spleen and Une Sainte en son aureole, and Britten’s The Journeying Boy (Hardy), from which the play takes its name. The single performance sold out, but the play will be performed again later in the year at the Guildhall School of Music. A visit is heartily recommended, save to the readily-shockable Daily Mail brigade, for whom ‘language’ and tone might prove a little much.

Mark Berry