United Kingdom Deloitte Ignite Festival 2015 – Django Reinhart: Orpheus: Little Bulb Theatre / Dominic Conway (music director), Linbury Studio Theatre, ROH, London, 16.9.2015. (JPr)
Clare Beresford (vocal, double bass), Dominic Conway (guitar), Miriam Gould (vocals, violin), Eugénie Pastor (vocals, flute/swanee whistle), Charlie Penn (piano/organ), Tom Penn (counter tenor, percussion), Alexander Scott (clarinet) and Shamira Turner (vocals, accordion)
Written and Devised by the Company
Director: Alexander Scott
Designer: Mary Drummond
Puppets: Max Humphries
Lighting design: Michael Odam
Sound design: Ed Clarke
This wonderfully entertaining evening nearly defies description but welcomed award-winning Little Bulb Theatre to the Royal Opera House to take part in the Deloitte Ignite Festival 2015 which is an annual celebration of new approaches in opera and ballet. This was something very different indeed, and very refreshing to see it was too. The closest it gets to ballet is the mime the company do and the nearest it gets to opera is when the remarkable counter-tenor Tom Penn, who has spent most of Orpheus banging away on drums, sings a plaintive Le Chanson de Perséphone composed by the company. Overall there is the feeling of an elaborate Edinburgh Fringe show but much fun was had by all.
I wonder what those who saw it at the recent Salzburg Festival made of this ‘take’ on the Orpheus myth that Kasper Holten in his printed ‘Welcome’ described as ‘Built on the idea that through song we have not only the opportunity to express emotion but also the potential to change the will of the gods. Orpheus could be described as opera’s founding myth.’ Little Bulb Theatre’s highly original fun version combines ‘a play within a play’, classical music (as heard recorded live), French chanson, hot club jazz and original compositions played live by six wonderfully talented actor/musicians. Little Bulb Theatre explain how ‘As we began to shape our own version of this great myth we were inspired to look back at the many artists that came before us. In particular, we were drawn to Monteverdi’s early opera L’Orfeo from which we have borrowed and adapted a section of the prologue, Dal Mio Permesso Amato, to express the fierce grief and solemn determination of Orpheus as we find him at the start of our third act. Taking and appropriating in this way we picked up threads from across the vast spectrum of Orphic renderings, from Rilke’s elusive Sonnets to Orpheus to Jim Henson’s 1980’s children series The Storyteller, and wove them together with stories and anecdotes about our own Orphic hero. Django Reinhart, and his mercurial life in 1930’s Paris.’
A fictional Piaf-like songstress Yvette Pépin (Eugénie Pastor) has cajoled the legendary guitarist, Django Reinhart (Dominic Conway), to join her in a new production of Orpheus. Conway’s Django/Orpheus arrives with a flourish through the red curtains yet remains silent, a calm – if somewhat self-possessed – presence, who lets his superb guitar playing do all his talking for him. Pastor as Pépin/Eurydice merges the gawkiness of Popeye’s Olive Oyl with the accent and singing voice of Edith from ‘Allo ‘Allo! – her rendering of Piaf’s Hymne à L’Amour was affectionate but had similarities to the incomparable Kenneth Williams’s classic cod-French song ‘Ma Crepe Suzette’ (available on YouTube).
Little Bulb Theatre’s Orpheus took place in a 1930’s Paris cabaret setting that reminded me very much of the actual musical Cabaret which is set in Weimar Germany of the same period. Thoughts of Woody Allen loomed over all this as some of Django Reinhart’s gypsy jazz music is in his soundtracks and the silent movie-style captions and mime sequences reminded me of some of his early – and funniest – films. From the get-go all the tableaux are played out against excerpts of music such as from Saint-Saëns’ The Carnival of the Animals when the company wear buck teeth, ears, antlers and hooves to play woodland creatures or The Toccata from Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor to herald Django-as-Orpheus’s descent into the underworld. (Apparently when this show was first put on at Battersea Arts Centre’s Grand Hall this was played on the organ there which was subsequently damaged in a fire last March.) Later masks are donned and sheets are wrapped around to personify the denizens of the underworld and apart from origami birds, a large puppet snake and a few bits and pieces on stage that’s it as far as Mary Drummond’s designs are concerned.
The movement is deliberately comic and lumpen and there is an element of the ‘rude mechanicals’ from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream to the proceedings. Apart from the outstanding musicianship of all concerned there is a charming air of spontaneity and ‘let’s put on a show’ gung-ho spirit that is charming even if Alexander Scott’s production begins to outstay its welcome after nearly two hours (including an interval). A much tighter straight-through 75 minutes or so would have been even better. The extended ‘Musical Interlude’ – despite further evidence of Dominic Conway’s virtuosity on the guitar and a rousing, foot-stomping Dinah from all concerned – dragged and may only really work in an informal setting with the audience in cabaret-style themselves and seated at tables to allow the musicians to move amongst them so they can feel more involved in the performance.
I must conclude by firstly expressing my utmost admiration for the versatility of the company as a whole; each plays at least one instrument and they also have to act, move (it is never quite dancing) and sometimes sing – seemingly often at the same time! In particular, the ‘Triplettes de l’Antiquité’, are three hyperactive young women (Miriam Gould, Shamira Turner and Clare Beresford) on violin, accordion and double bass respectively, who not only throw themselves wholeheartedly into all the zaniness but can also sing tunefully and play some really great hot jazz tunes. Overall, Orpheus was a great experience to be at and was the perfect antidote for all the serious classical music I go to and I thoroughly enjoyed myself, If you think a not-at-all serious mix of music and myth would appeal to you then do catch Orpheus on tour in Bristol, Southampton, Liverpool or Birmingham.
For more about Little Bulb Theatre and the UK tour visit http://www.littlebulbtheatre.com/orpheus.html.