Returning Britten's dark social parable Peter Grimes to the sea

With the Aldeburgh Festival's production of Peter Grimes on the Beach, director Tim Albery has created a site-specific opera that avoids cliché to provide an allusive blur of fact and fiction.

Peter Grimes on the Beach
Aldeburgh Beach, Aldeburgh Festival 

There isn’t a venue in all of Suffolk large enough to stage Benjamin Britten’s twentieth-century operatic classic Peter Grimes. It’s an irony that the Suffolk-born composer himself would surely have enjoyed – a mildly surreal situation that highlights the tension between the fame and notoriety that Peter Grimes brings to the county, and the sleepy, holiday-lets-and-fishing-boats reality of the place. But in this centenary year of Britten’s birth practicalities couldn’t stand in the way of ambition, and so the boldest, least practical musical project of 2013 was born: staging Peter Grimes on the very Aldeburgh beach on which it is set – wind, waves, water and all.

The concept of “site-specific” theatre has recently become something of a cliché, and one to which opera certainly hasn’t been immune. Used to encompass everything from performances of La bohème in a pub to Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo in a disused warehouse, the term has lost its creative energy as the locations have lost their, well, specificity, becoming instead a crutch for directors light on concept and heavy on postmodern affectation. But in Peter Grimes on the Beach we have a rare beast – a staging whose site couldn’t be more specific if it tried, and a director in Tim Albery whose vision is full of emotional and conceptual substance.

Geography has rarely been a favourite subject among composers. Operas tend to be wilfully unspecific about their locations, using them for exotic colour or context, but rarely for anything deeper. Bellini’s I Puritani rather creatively locates Plymouth in Scotland, while Puccini roamed freely among fantasy landscapes, creating essentialised visions of Japan (Madama Butterfly) and West Coast America (La Fanciulla del West). But Peter Grimes, the product not only of Britten but Suffolk poet George Crabbe, is rigidly locked into the bleakly beautiful geography of England’s East Coast.

And so, as we all made our wellied-and-waterproofed way onto the beach on a blustery evening in June, it felt like the inevitable thing to do, to return Britten’s dark social parable to the sea from whence it came. The crackle and hiss of the North Sea on shingle beach underpins the entire opera, surfacing most memorably in the fifth of the Sea Interludes. Here Britten’s uncannily evocative version duetted with the real thing, sending a shiver through us that had little to do with the vicious wind. We watched Bulstrode and Grimes push his boat down the beach one final time, watched the villagers of the Borough walking home from church across the pebbles, and saw an allusive blur of fact and fiction.

Relocating the tale to the time of its composition, Albery gave us a wartime setting that framed this domestic tragedy in the broader tragedy of an entire nation. A 1940s Spitfire dipped low above Leslie Travers’ stage at the start, offering us a sense of distance and perspective systematically denied us in Britten’s claustrophobic, introspective tale, reminding us of a world, not just a community, in flux.

The spectacle of Peter Grimes on the Beach was always going to be the thing, and musically the Aldeburgh Festival took the pragmatic steps of recordings the live performance given a few weeks earlier at Snape, and combining live vocal elements with a pre-recorded orchestral soundtrack. Conductor Stuart Bedford had the unenviable task of keeping the two united, and barring a few technical issues achieved extraordinary feats. The all-female quartet from Act II was exquisite, and the awkward 7/4 round Old Joe Has Gone Fishing stayed on track even as so many in the opera house have faltered. The balance however was never quite right, with orchestra and often chorus sadly muffled and some odd details amplified beyond all sense of proportion. Britten’s floated, pianissimo moments (notably Grimes’ own “Now the Great Bear”) were sacrificed to the wind, leaving first-timers with little idea of their potency.

But these are quibbles dwarfed by the miracles that were achieved here. Though Alan Oke will never match for me the rough magic of a Vickers or a Skelton, he does bring a Pearsian otherness that only added to the sense of the uncanny in this setting. His was a performance of technical mastery in such conditions, only exceeded by Giselle Allen’s Ellen Orford (benefitting from rather better amplification), whose human warmth was palpable even as the gale picked up through the evening. Excellent support came from David Kempster as Balstrode and Catherine Wyn-Rogers as a wonderfully macabre Mrs Sedley.

Battling the same elements that beat down the inhabitants of Britten and Crabbe’s Borough as we watched the opera, there was no one in the audience of the Aldeburgh Festival’s Peter Grimes on the Beach who won’t carry back with them into the opera house the rasp of Suffolk’s seagulls, the roll of its waves, and a more vivid sense of Britten’s masterpiece. When Peter Grimes was premiered in 1945, re-openeing the Royal Opera House after the war, it was credited with re-inventing a genre, with bringing new audiences and a new voice to a tired medium. Soon to be released in cinemas, Peter Grimes on the Beach may yet do the same, proving that just occasionally “stepping outside the box” of theatre can be more than a cliché. 

Now find out why an obsession with composers' birthdays is turning our orchestras into "state-funded tribute bands".

 

The cast on stage for the first night of Peter Grimes on the Beach. Photograph: Getty Images
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Poo jokes and pessimism – the scatological legacy of British humour

Is it simply a testament to our good nature, or a sign of a darker kind of cynicism?

Many Brits will have amused themselves this summer by packing a tent, stashing their narcotics and heading over to a muddy field in the middle of nowhere to brave the torrential rain at a music festival.

Wallowing in the mud and other more faecal byproducts to the soundtrack of up-and-coming bands is considered the peak of hedonism for many in the UK, and there is something quintessentially British about the way we willfully embrace the general state of depravity that most of our festivals inevitably collapse into.

One internet meme that perfectly epitomises the difference between British and American festival culture shows an image of a woman at a US event pulling a sad face as she reveals the worst thing she’s seen: “Spitting on the ground.” On her right, a British man slumped in a camping chair holds up his sign, reading: “A man covered in his own shit sniffing ketamine off his mate’s unwashed scrotum.”

There’s a cheerful pride with which Brits embrace bodily dysfunction as a part of our comic culture, and a common trope of British humour involves undermining the stiff upper lip attitude associated with English people, often with an act of complete depravity that dispels any illusion of class and respectability. Britons have always been partial to a good old-fashioned dose of scatological humour, from Chaucer’s bawdy fabliaux that celebrate obscenity, to Shakespeare’s Falstaff, or Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Swift’s "Scatological Cycle".

Much of the comic effect that these writers create derives from undermining high-brow intellect or spirituality with the low-brow of the rear end – for example the part in Chaucer’s Summoner’s Tale, where the division of an old man’s fart into 12 serves as a parody of the descent of the holy ghost at Pentecost.

Faeces has long since been ingrained in our past literary and historical culture – after all, as the great Shakespeare was writing some of the western world’s most seminal pieces of English literature, his chamber-maid was most likely throwing pieces of his own faeces out of the window next to him.

In English literature, scatological humour can be juvenile, but it has also been used to represent wider social anxieties. In turning bottoms up and exposing the rear end, "shiterature" is often about breaking taboos, and exposing the dirty underbelly of society. Part of the "civilising" process that societies perform to reach a high level of sophistication involves distancing oneself from one’s own excrement, and scatology reverses this by shedding a light on our dirtiest natural habits. Swift’s excremental vision asked us to peel back the mask of genteel individuals, revealing their true and disgusting selves.

Scatology can also represent collective self-disgust, and has been used to question the integrity of a British national identity that has in the past denied its colonial wrongdoings. In Tristram Shandy, the protagonist's porous and leaking diseased body has been interpreted as a metaphor for the British Empire, and indeed the whole being of the Shandean gentleman is sub-textually supported by British colonialism, being as they are descended from merchants who profited from eastern goods sold to the European bourgeois and aristocrats.

Scatology has been used to represent hypochondria, the crisis of the aristocracy, self-disgust and sexual disgust – incidentally all things that we might find at an English festival.

The onslaught of the modern era hasn’t managed to dispel our fondness for injecting sophisticated comedy with snippets of scatological humour. In Peep Show for example, a show largely appreciated for its dry wit and irony, a hilarious scene involves Mark suffering from uncontrollable diarrhea as his boss watches on in disgust. Another brilliant scene is where Jeremy’s employer at the gym confronts him with a plastic bag filled with a human stool, which Jez had used to frame another employee for pooing in the pool.

In a similar vein, one of the most famous scenes in The Inbetweeners is where the uptight Will manages to poo himself during one of his A-level exams. In the second movie, there is another disgusting poo in the pool scene.

In the dark comedy series The Mighty Boosh, characters reference "taking a shit" on objects ranging from a salad, to a swan, to even "your mum". Almost all of these characters (Mark from Peep Show, Will from The Inbetweeners and The Mighty Boosh's Howard Moon) see themselves in some way as representative of a modern British gentleman – prudish, well educated and well spoken. Each of them at points embarrasses themselves and their image with reference to their bowel movements.

It’s a cliché that British humour is about losers, and that we are more prone to self-deprecation than our friends across the pond – a cliché that is not without some truth. 

Admittedly nowadays, much American humour similarly relies on self-deprecation and laughing at the sorry fate of "losers", but cynicism and irony are more fundamental to British comedy. On commenting on the difference between the American and British versions of The Office, Ricky Gervais once said that in the UK: "Failure and disappointment lurk around every corner… We use (irony) as liberally as prepositions in every day speech. We tease our friends. We use sarcasm as a shield and weapon." 

It is certainly true that in Britain, we are particularly pre-occupied with laughing at the failures of the self, and this can manifest itself potently through deprecation of the body.

Maybe the general sense of pessimism that is alluded to so much in the UK is due to our dismal weather, and maybe our ability to laugh at ourselves and our dysfunctions is a simply a testament to our good nature, and something to be applauded. Perhaps it is just something in the air rising from our manure-ploughed green and pleasant lands that inspires in our British comedians the desire to return time and time again to the scatological trope. Or perhaps, if we dig a bit deeper into our dung-fertilised lands, we might find that an anxiety about the foundations of British identity is behind the relentless desire to represent the permeability of the personal and national body.

Should we be embracing our tendency towards self-deprecation, or does it lead to a more problematic kind of cynicism that is restrictive, making us resistant to the idea of radical change? Perhaps we are destined to remain stuck in the mud forever, grumbling about the bad weather as we desperately shelter from the rain under a gazebo, sipping on the dregs of warm beer, pretending we’re having a good time – and who knows? Maybe this is what a good time looks like. Swift once told us to bless the "gaudy tulips raised from dung" – British comedy continues to do so quite literally.