Opera going south

A Peckham production of "Dido and Aeneas" is not quite bold enough

Dido and Aeneas, Bussey Building, Peckham. 7.30pm Thursday 10 January 2013

Although still more synonymous with knife-crime than culture, Peckham is enjoying something of a sea-change at the moment. Last year saw the Royal Court venture south for a series of performances in their new “Theatre Local” project, and for one night during the summer a multi-storey car-park became the unlikely stage for a remixed performance of Stravinsky’s iconic ballet The Rite of Spring. The hub of the action is Peckham’s Bussey Building – a venue best-known for its raves, but now developing an alter-ego as the progressive arts venue of choice south of the river. But while the Royal Court’s brand of contemporary theatre is a major step, how much greater a leap is the venue’s latest project: 18th century opera.

In many ways Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas is the perfect opera for today. Tate’s English libretto may have the odd metaphorical flight of fancy, but is otherwise straightforward and easily understood, even without the help of surtitles. The themes – love and betrayal – are classics, and the whole cycle from infatuation to despair and death takes just under an hour to run its course, leaving plenty of time for a drink and debrief afterwards.

So why did I leave Opera In Space’s performance so confused?

It’s always going to a challenge performing opera in unusual spaces. I’ve attended performances over the years in warehouses, office-buildings, pubs, gardens, boats and even a nightclub, and each unusual venue only makes me more grateful for the classic opera house, with its controlled acoustics and excellent sight-lines. While the promenade elements of this Dido give everyone a fair shot at seeing at least some of the show, a directorial preference for on-floor writhings means that large chunks are completely obscured, and the traverse-style setup in the main staging area effectively prevents a third of the audience from seeing all but the merest glimpse of the action.

The concepts too are decidedly unclear, not aided by some rather gawky tableaux vivants by way of “overture”, juxtaposing bursts of African drumming with blandly symbolic stage-pictures. Spoken text is also rather unnecessarily included later in the show (which exists in that generic no-time, no-place of contemporary theatre), adding little by transforming the Carthaginian Queen and her ladies into schoolgirls chattering about their A level studies. If director Richard Pyros had a coherent vision for the piece then he kept it concealed.

Pasticcio was a favourite genre of the 18th century opera house – essentially stitching together the best bits from various composers’ works into a single dramatic work – and Opera In Space make a clever nod to this in their interpolation of jazz songs into Purcell’s score. But I would have loved to see smarter choices than the unambiguous “Misty” (in case we hadn’t realised that Dido was smitten with her charisma-free Aeneas) and Jerome Kern’s “All The Things that You Are”, which suffered from an awkward arrangement and uneasily low key.

There is much to like here though. The singing is generally solid, with the cast led by Carleen Ebbs’ polished Belinda, singing elegantly and idiomatically in ensemble with Marie Degodet (Second Woman) and Sylvia Gallant’s Dido. Gallant is at the higher end of mezzos, which lends her despairing queen a youthfulness but also a lightness that Purcell’s writing happily accommodates. Adam Kowalczyk did his best with Aeneas, but struggled to make much impression dramatically in the space of his limited music.

There is a saucily revisionist take on the Sailors’ “Come Away” that works beautifully, and some effective atmospherics for the Sorceress and her lair. But the chief delight though is the instrumental work from harpsichordist Katie de la Matter and her skeleton band. Not for nothing was Purcell the master of the ground bass (a riff, by any other name); his music has such excellent bone-structure that even when you strip away all the usual layers of colour you are still left with something beautiful, especially when stylishly articulated here by cellist Poppy Walshaw and violinist Eleanor Harrison.

It’s hard to leave Opera In Space’s Dido and Aeneas and not feel like you’ve just had an evening of cut-price Punchdrunk. The promenade setup and venue are great, and cry out for something just a little bolder, a little less politely safe. There’s an uneasy compromise here between traditionalism and experimentation which hasn’t quite found its balance. Would I return for another production? Absolutely. But on current form it may take a few more tries to make this worthy and interesting project the enjoyable experience it could so easily be.

An image from Opera in Space's "Dido and Aeneas". Credit: Sally Neville
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Paula Hawkins: a pulp-feminist follow-up on The Girl on the Train

Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion in misogyny. 

A couple of years ago, Paula Hawkins, an Oxford graduate with a run of chick-lit novels to her name (well, to her nom de plume Amy Silver), became the latest example of various splashy phenomena. Most obviously, The Girl on the Train, her first thriller, made Hawkins an out-of-nowhere, book-clubtastic, “movie rights gone in a flash” sensation, on the model of E L James. It also made Hawkins, who had formerly worked at the Times, one of those journalist-turned-juggernaut figures, like Robert Harris and Gillian Flynn, a beacon of light to every deadline-haunted hack.

Not so publicised was the kind of writer the book showed Hawkins to be. The Flynn comparisons were perfunctory, the overlap limited to shared use of multiple narrators and that not uncommon word, “girl”. A puff from Stephen King was a little more in tune with Hawkins’s sensibility, a taste for the Gothic intensities that lurk beneath the everyday; but King’s praise – it kept him up all night – still missed her strangest virtue: not the gift for making people turn a lot of pages and feel foggy on the next day’s commute, but for using the mystery thriller form as a back-door polemic, every revelation bringing an adjustment of world-view, every twist of the plot putting a spin on what we thought she thought. More striking than Hawkins’s late success or old career was her emergence as a new practitioner of feminist pulp, the sub-subgenre in which men destroy and women suffer, whose most recent classic had been Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and whose presiding genius – its queen for fifty years and counting – is the hydra-headed literary combustion engine who usually signs herself Joyce Carol Oates.

Hawkins’s new novel, Into the Water, serves to make things clearer. It enables her readers to sketch a Venn diagram to identify what was incidental to The Girl on the Train – what merely helped to grease the wheels – and what she is obsessed with. Why call it an obsession and not a crutch, a formula, the hardening of habit? Not because what Hawkins is up to conflicts with readability – clearly that isn’t the case – but because she is building novels more intricate, more packed with implication, than readability demands.

Like The Girl on the Train, the new novel centres on a female victim with alleged deficiencies as a woman and mother. The body of Danielle “Nel” Abbott, a writer and photographer, is discovered in the part of a lake known as “the drowning pool”. Nel wasn’t much liked by the other local women. She had ideas above her station. She was a “slattern”. In fact, Nel’s death goes unmourned by everyone except her wild 15-year-old daughter, Lena, who is convinced her mother jumped, but for a good – withheld – reason. To Nel’s unmarried sister, Jules, who ignored a number of phone calls and messages, and who has travelled from London to watch over Lena and identify the body, Nel’s death is the final insult, another way of upsetting her existence.

Into the Water follows its predecessor in applying laser scrutiny to a small patch, but there are signs of growth and greater ambition. Last time the setting was a pair of houses on Blenheim Road, Bucks. Here it is the community of Beckford, a village in or near Northumberland, several hours’ drive from anywhere civilised – “if you consider Newcastle civilised”, in the words of one character. The Girl on the Train had three female narrators describing events, in mildly jagged order, that occurred across a single summer. The new novel features testimony from five characters, including Jules, Lena and the brother of Lena’s dead best friend, and provides close access, in the third person, to another five, including the best friend’s mother. Alongside these ten voices are sections narrated by Jules in 1993 – her experiences carry echoes of Stephen King’s Carrie – as well as passages from Nel’s unfinished manuscript: a photographic history of the Beckford lake called The Drowning Pool, containing a prologue and descriptions of three previous deaths, dating from 1920, 1983 and 1679.

The book isn’t free of cliché – the phrase “out of the woods” is not a reference to the rural setting – and some of Hawkins’s devices border on cheating. At various points a narrator starts talking about a previously shrouded incident soon after it has been revealed elsewhere, as if the characters were in cahoots, conspiring how best to frustrate the reader. There’s much recourse to the undefined event, the word “it”. (What?!) The outsider figure, Detective Sergeant Erin Morgan, is severely restricted in her role as a conduit for backstory. “Have you not seen any background on this?” her superior asks. No, she hasn’t. But Erin “should have been given the files”. Well, she wasn’t.

But most of the time, the novel is plausible and grimly gripping, and Hawkins plays fair. Characters aren’t only lying to us, they are often lying to themselves, or else they’re misinformed. The reader always knows more than any one character but never knows all that a character knows, and Hawkins trusts that the promise of enlightenment is sufficiently seductive to deliver information by the drip.

So, Into the Water is on a par with The Girl on a Train – and of a piece with it, too. Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion not just in patriarchal structures, but in misogyny. The blame lies with men, who react with violence and psychological abuse to the perceived threat of a woman’s independence. But one of the main products of this mistreatment is that the female characters overlook the role played by such damage when considering other women’s behaviour and subscribe instead to a male-sanctioned narrative of stubborn irrationality or wilful coldness.

Hawkins seems more engaged with the second part of the equation, the way that women see themselves and each other. The radicalism of The Girl on the Train and Into the Water depends partly on the persuasive depiction of figures such as (in Girl) the pathetic drunk and the unrepentant home-wrecker, and in the new novel the money-grabbing mystic, the joyless spinster, the trouble-making man-eater. Then Hawkins exposes the truth behind the cardboard, the way these images have been constructed and perpetuated. Her plotting works as an ambush and also as a rebuke. “You didn’t believe that nonsense, did you?” she seems to be saying. “Oh, you did – and here’s why.”

The effect is less patronising than perhaps it sounds. The rebuke is aimed at the reader not as a citizen but as a participant in the thriller tradition. After all, the victim who deserved it is a familiar character: we have little trouble believing the type. Hawkins has set herself the challenge of adding a third dimension to the dramatis personae bequeathed by Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. We are accustomed to characters shifting shape as a story develops. The obvious suspect – twitchy, tattooed, alibi-less – was all along a Good Samaritan; the spotless widow has a cellar full of skulls. Hawkins goes further, showing how narrative presumptions betray unconscious beliefs, upending clichés of other people’s making. You might dismiss her as a killjoy if she wasn’t so addictive. 

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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