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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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear