Reviews OperaPerformance Published 5 September 2012

Grimeborn Triple Bill

Arcola Theatre ⋄ 1st September 2012

Sexually explicit content.

Carmel Doohan

This varied programme features three short opera’s, each one looking at the trials of love from a different perspective. First up is La Voix Humaine, Francis Poulenc’s opera for solo soprano based on the play by Jean Cocteau. Sung in French, it involves a woman having a conversation on the telephone with her estranged lover. Director Ilan Reichel keeps the set up stylish and simple and Soprano Katerina Mina is beautiful and thoroughly convincing as the heartbroken heroine. Even to someone who can only pick up the word rien, it is captivating.

Number two, is a section from opera-in-progress Tonseisha and it opens with the killer line “Isn’t it wonderful to wake up in the morning, all alone, and not have to tell somebody that you love them. When you don’t. Any more.” The opera singers are more like backing singers in this piece and, along with a flautist, they accompany what seems to be a series of haiku’s. A young Japanese woman is haunted by cult author Richard Brautigan and combining Brautigan’s words with his own, writer Kim Ashton creates a riddling poetic dance about whether or not a couple should remain together. With an amplified typewriter used for percussion, although the story is slight, the mix of sound and poetry is evocative.

It is, however, the final show that you will go home thinking about. Unleashed, a verbatim piece based on interviews with gay men about what they like to do in bed and why, is funny and poignant, with a gravitas that feels fitting to the medium. It starts slowly and strangely; it is unclear whether we are watching a tech set up or if the show has actually begun. We then notice that one of the men is naked. He continues moving wires and laptops around and there is much to-ing and fro-ing of microphones until the casually dropped but brilliantly earned line “Is everyone turned on now?” serves as a cue for the operatics to commence.

Original and intelligent in both form and content, young men narrate tales of sexual exploits while a male soprano wails out the I’s, like’s, y’knows, and really’s that pepper the confessions. This makes for stuttering, broken, stories, the sung elements becoming a haunting refrain of “I…Like… I… really… like…I…I…I…I…You know…You know…I…Like…” This brilliantly captures the emotion pulsating, but unspoken, within many of the encounters described. Unable to turn itself into a coherent sentence it becomes a magnificent echoing howl.

Throughout the performance, laptops on the floor at either side of the stage show footage of a Geisha performing. A crudely made up young man in a sack-like gingham dress copies the moves, fanning and bowing in a graceless pantomime while two violinists play ferociously. Suddenly a red strip-light flickers on and we are in something more like an underground BDSM club. With dark ritualistic intent, the boy who was naked in the beginning is covered in clay and paint and left to stagger blinded around the stage.

These precise, yet opaque enactments are reminiscent of Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle; dripping in inexplicable meaning, they reference a world unknown to most viewers and feel like a genuine attempt to symbolise and express ideas that can be explained in no other way.

Writer and director Nick Blackburn is looking to make this into a full length piece and if he does it could be fantastic. Blackburn is using the form in a way that allows the utter mess of need and desire to be explored, yet also skilfully contained. These dense, sexual contradictions seem an ideal topic for the power and poetic drama that opera can provide.

For more information about Grimeborn Festival go to the Arcola Theatre’s website
For more information about Unleashed to their blog

Carmel Doohan

Carmel is an arts journalist and writer who lives in Hackney, London.

Grimeborn Triple Bill Show Info

Directed by Ilan Reichel, Gary Merry, Nick Blackburn

Original Music Francis Poulenc, Kim B Ashton, Philip Venables

Show Details & Tickets


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