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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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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