Review: The Importance of Being Earnest/A Soldier and a Maker

A gloriously irreverent operatic adaptation of Oscar Wilde's classic.

The Importance of Being Earnest/A Soldier and a Maker

Barbican Hall Thursday 26 April/Barbican Pit Sunday 29 April 2012.

It’s clear from the first bars of Gerald Barry’s new operatic adaptation of The Importance of Being Earnest that tradition can expect little by way of kid gloves. Wilde’s cucumber sandwiches might have survived intact, but as crunching, splintering brass chords dismantle the wreckage of Auld Lang Syne, the barely-familiar melody pulsing with rhythmic death-throes, it’s clear that this comedy of manners has taken its battle of the sexes out of the drawing room and onto the streets.

A plot thinner than an ingenue’s waist provides the structure on which Oscar Wilde hangs some of the sharpest, swiftest wit, making for a delightful piece of theatre but a decidedly unlikely basis for the ponderous pace of opera. There’s a reason comic operas tend toward the slapstick.

Yet what Barry has achieved here is remarkable, both on its own terms and as a skilled reinvention of a classic. Cutting the play with brutal enthusiasm and sticking to his own astringent, contrarian sound-world, he creates a sophisticated piece of musical comedy whose energy is impossible to gainsay. Cross-casting Lady Bracknell as a bass (a suitably stentorian Alan Ewing) gives the role the sexless gravitas it calls out for, and helps anchor Barry’s unwieldy phrases as they lumber expressively from the lowest regions up into falsetto. Ewing’s vomitous delivery of “A handbag” is a worthy rival to Edith Evans’.

Reworking Lady Bracknell as a composer (a devotee, naturally, of the German school) allows Barry’s musical humour to romp in moments of pastiche (a military march at the mention of the French Revolution) and two extraordinary vocal orchestrations of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, exploiting the neurotic tenorial extremes of Peter Tantsits’ John Worthing. But while both Tantsits and Joshua Bloom’s Algernon manage to shape Barry’s athletic vocal lines into fully characterised melodies, it is Barbara Hannigan’s Cecily who shines brightest, plucking top Ds from the air, and clashing with Gwendolen (Katalin Karolyi) in a vocal battle of wilfully non-musical vigour.

Loud-hailers, smashed plates (40 sacrificed in each performance), and even a pair of riding boots are all enlisted to Barry’s irreverent cause, marshalled in a witty attack on Serialism and the intellectual affectations of Schoenberg et al. Under Thomas Ades, the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group shaped Barry’s orchestral textures with precision, giving just the right amount of bite to a work whose technical credentials and inventiveness have shown up the various toothless excuses for contemporary opera London has been fobbed-off with recently.

Taking a rather more reflective approach to tradition, pianist and broadcaster Iain Burnside’s latest homage to English music, A Soldier and a Maker, explores the life and work of Ivor Gurney. A casualty (mentally if not physically) of the First World War, Gurney never fully recovered from his experiences, and his latter years in a mental hospital robbed Britain of an composer who might have rivalled his contemporary Herbert Howells for elegiac pastoralism.

Interweaving performances of Gurney’s own music with drama fashioned from letters, medical records, and accounts from Gurney’s friends and colleagues, Burnside has created a vivid if slightly overloaded piece of theatre (Gurney’s own works rarely outstay their welcome) that frames the composer’s valleys and meadows within war, psychological collapse and the changing social landscape of post-Edwardian England.

Burnside’s young performers from the Guildhall School of Music & Drama throw themselves gamely into the period, simpering, guffawing and jolly-good-chap-ing with gusto. Richard Goulding’s Gurney is brittle and touching – ever the outsider – and balanced by the impossibly smug Howells (Nicholas Allen). The singing is a mixed-bag, at its best in ensembles, but mention should be made of some fine work from Alex Knox and Adam Sullivan, whose beautiful phrasing mirrored the curving hillsides so beloved of the composer.

Gurney’s is a life that lends itself to dramatisation, a slow-building, episodic tragedy of creative waste, but one that occasionally struggles here to break free of the weight of Burnside’s research. Tellingly it is in the bald accounts of Gurney’s sister Winifred (Bethan Langford) and the simple grasp and sigh of Gurney’s own music that the drama finds its centre – truest testimony to the slight, unassuming genius of this neglected artist.

A 1934 production of The Importance of Being Earnest
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The Underground Railroad is a novel which offers hope for the very strong of heart

Whitehead’s prize-winning novel of slavery in America is his finest work yet.

30 DOLLARS REWARD will be given to any person who will deliver to me, or confine in any gaol in the state so that I can get her again, a likely yellow NEGRO GIRL 18 years of age who ran away nine months past. She is an artfully lively girl and will, no doubt, attempt to pass as a free person, but has a noticeable scar on her elbow, occasioned by a burn.

 

“Want ads” for runaway slaves serve as section breaks throughout Colson Whitehead’s searing novel The Underground Rail­road, which takes a familiar story – concerning the manifold injustices of American slavery – and brings it to terrible, terrifying new life. Whitehead does so by revealing, in close view, just how brutal and businesslike were efforts to ignore, obscure and destroy the dignity and humanity of so many men and women for so very long.

The novel begins with an auction:

 

Onlookers chewed fresh oysters and hot corn as the auctioneers shouted into the air. The slaves stood naked on the platform. There was a bidding war over a group of Ashanti studs, those Africans of renowned industry and musculature, and the foreman of a limestone quarry bought a bunch of pickaninnies in an astounding bargain.

 

Thereafter we learn that “A young buck from strong tribal stock got customers into a froth”, that “A slave girl squeezing out pups was like a mint, money that bred money”, and that a mother “maintained a reserve of maternal feeling after the loss of her five children – three dead before they could walk and the others sold off when they were old enough to carry water and grab weeds around the great house”.

Finally – and this is still just in the opening pages of the novel – we discover, through the eyes of a young woman named Cora, what happens when any of these persons resists living as purchased property: “She had seen men hung from trees and left for buzzards and crows. Women carved open to the bones with the cat-o’-nine-tails. Bodies alive and dead roasted on pyres. Feet cut off to prevent escape and hands cut off to prevent theft.”

Whether in spite or because of these consequences – and mindful, even haunted by the knowledge, that her mother managed to escape her own bondage – Cora decides to join a fellow slave named Caesar in running away. In Whitehead’s treatment, a metaphor for the secret network of support that helped black slaves reach the free (or at least freer) American north and Canada becomes an actual makeshift train that travels underground, which Cora and Caesar ride across the South. They are in constant peril, relieved by passing periods of respite: sleeping in a bed for the first time, learning to read and write, and even coming into a small amount of money, which, Cora soon discovers, “was new and unpredictable and liked to go where it pleased”.

Throughout their escape, they are pursued by a vicious slave-catcher called Ridgeway, who is motivated by far more than merely financial reward: “Charging through the dark, branches lashing his face, stumps sending him ass over elbow before he got up again. In the chase his blood sang and glowed.” Ridgeway, Cora and their respective others meet throughout the novel, their positions of advantage and opportunity revolving in ways that make for flat-out suspenseful reading. Many others are grievously harmed in the meantime, as they move through a small-town, 19th-century American world of crafty and hypocritical politesse and ritualised violence. The violence is never rendered more awfully than in the festive, Friday-night lynching sessions that take place at a picturesque park which Cora watches from an attic refuge.

The Underground Railroad, awarded the American National Book Award for Fiction last month, is Whitehead’s sixth novel. Following the more playful novel of manners Sag Harbor and Zone One, a zombie romp, it is his most ambitious and accomplished book since the Pulitzer-nominated John Henry Days of 2001. In fact, the lack of literary showiness – vividly presenting the rudely built underground railway and the hard lives of those riding it – makes The Underground Railroad perhaps his finest work. Although the repeated encounters between Cora and Ridgeway across such a sprawling set will strain the credulity of anyone save a diehard Victor Hugo fan, Whitehead is a confident enough writer to let their lines of escape, pursuit and capture braid and break apart again and again, building to an exciting and rending conclusion. It is one that offers hope for the very strong of heart. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage