Intriguing Double Bill from Music Theatre Wales

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mendonça, Maxwell Davies: Helen-Jane Howells (soprano), Nia Roberts (actress), Kelvin Thomas (King), Music Theatre Wales, Michael Raffery (conductor), Doris Soutzker Hall, Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff, 16.3.2013 (PCG)

Mendonça: Ping
Maxwell Davies: Eight Songs for a Mad King

Nia Roberts in Ping Photo_Clive Barda
Nia Roberts in Ping. Photo Clive Barda

To describe the theatrical action of Ping would be easy. A woman walks onto the right-hand side of a stage with a solitary table in the centre, walks across to the left-hand side, comes back and climbs onto the table and then walks off again. This takes some thirty-five minutes during which she utters a string of disconnected words which may or may not have some meaning. It would be easy, but it would not be the whole story. In an illuminating talk before the performance the producer Michael McCarthy said that the text by Samuel Beckett, meaningless though it might appear at first sight, did contain some hidden meanings about the relationship between the conscious (the woman), her subconscious (musicians hidden behind a gauze) and the deeper subconscious (taped effects). And indeed there was clearly some sort of meaning hidden here, though it would be hard to describe in words and it is not clear that it was the meaning intended by Beckett.

The problem with this piece, here receiving its British première, was the fact that the three distinct layers did not really cohere into a whole. The spoken dialogue from the woman (pungently delivered by Nia Roberts) did not seem to be supported by the tone of the music by Vasco Mandonça, which veered erratically from abstract sounds slightly reminiscent of Messiaen to something which sounded more akin to the folk elements in Villa-Lobos’s more experimental scores. And the taped sounds, which sounded at times disconcertingly like someone putting down a stylus onto a crackly gramophone record, were confused by the fact that the amplified voice of Nia Roberts was mingled into the soundtrack. As a result it was sometimes difficult to perceive exactly where the voice was coming from. The production included a number of projected video images by Sandro Aguilar, but the black gauze onto which these were thrown made it very difficult to see precisely what (if anything) these actually were.

The performance itself seemed to be very good. The small group of musicians (two clarinets, viola, cello and percussion) were enhanced by the presence of a soprano who was dressed as a twin of the actress on the forestage and clearly represented her alter ego. Helen-Jane Howells sang her expressive lines, beautifully written for the voice, with poise and elegance even though the words she was actually singing were totally incomprehensible. But the real problem with Ping is that the disparate elements did not hang together. The music was fine. The theatrical impact of the text was undeniable. But the constituents that would have made Ping cohere into a work of music theatre were lacking.

Kelvin Thomas in Eight Songs for a Mad King. Photo Clive Barda
Kelvin Thomas in Eight Songs for a Mad King. Photo Clive Barda

What was missing in Ping became immediately apparent after the interval when Music Theatre Wales presented a new production of Peter Maxwell Davies’s Eight Songs for a Mad King. There was at once a sense of musical danger, enhanced by the close inter-reaction between Kelvin Thomas as a night-gowned and bewigged King George III and the orchestral musicians who surround and at times are perceived as threatening him. Over forty years after its première, Eight Songs has lost none of its visceral theatrical impact and its ability to shock. This was particularly true in this production, which treated the sometimes grotesque and semi-comic text with the utmost seriousness. One felt uncomfortable even when one was most inclined to feel alienated, and the dangerous line between voyeurism and pity was trodden with a sure directorial hand. Kelvin Thomas, who has made something of a speciality of this piece, acted with chilling assurance and successfully coped with nearly all of the near-impossible writing for the voice although there were occasions when I am pretty certain that he departed from Maxwell Davies’s notated pitches. The audience, which had received Ping with polite applause, responded to the performance of the Eight Songs with cheers which showed clearly that the work has lost none of its power over the years, a real demonstration of music theatre at its unified best.

In his introductory talk Michael McCarthy had stated that Eight Songs was a work which was one of a kind which could never be repeated. I would suggest that Maxwell Davies did try to repeat the experiment with his Miss Donnithorne’s Maggot, similarly engaging with madness. But the attempt to duplicate the success of Eight Songs merely serves to demonstrate that McCarthy was right, and that the synthesis achieved there could not be recovered again.

Michael Rafferty obtained superbly controlled performances from his group of young musicians, who were called upon to react dramatically with Kelvin Thomas in the Eight Songs and carried off their various assignments with aplomb.

This same double bill is to be repeated in Aberystwyth on 17 April and in Mold on 18 April; Eight Songs for a Mad King is also to be given in the Buxton Festival on 16 July as part of a new double bill including the British première of The killing flower by Salvatore Sciarrino. Music Theatre Wales have deservedly been garnering a collection of awards in this, their 25th anniversary year, and anybody interested in the future of music theatre in this country should make a serious endeavour to attend.

Paul Corfield Godfrey