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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Commons Confidential: Smith, selfies and pushy sons

All the best gossip from party conference, including why Dennis Skinner is now the MP for Selfie Central.

Owen Smith discovered the hard way at the Labour party conference in Liverpool that one moment you’re a contender and the next you’re a nobody. The party booked a luxurious suite at the plush Pullman Hotel for Candidate Smith before the leadership result. He was required to return the key card the day after Jeremy Corbyn’s second coming. On the upside, Smith no longer had to watch his defeat replayed endlessly on the apartment’s giant  flat-screen TV.

The Labour back-room boffin Patrick Heneghan, the party’s executive director of elections, had good cause to be startled when a TV crew pounced on him to demand an interview. The human submarine rarely surfaces in public and anonymity is his calling card. It turns out that the bespectacled Heneghan was mistaken for Owen Smith – a risky likeness when vengeful Corbynistas are on rampage. There’s no evidence of Smith being mistaken for Heneghan, though. Yet.

Members of Labour’s governing National Executive Committee are discovering new passions to pass the time during interminable meetings, as the Mods and the Corbs battle over each line of every decision. The shadow cabinet attack dog Jon “Sparkle” Ashworth, son of a casino croupier and a bunny girl, whiles away the hours by reading the poetry of Walt Whitman and W B Yeats on his iPad. Sparkle has learned that, to echo Whitman, to be with those he likes is enough.

I discovered Theresa May’s bit of rough – the grizzled Tory chairman, Patrick McLoughlin, a former Derbyshire coal miner – does his gardening in steel-toecapped wellies stamped “NCB” from his time down the pit thirty years ago. He’ll need his industrial footwear in Birmingham to kick around Tories revolting over grammar schools and Brexit.

Another ex-miner, Dennis Skinner, was the MP for Selfie Central in Liverpool, where a snap with the Beast of Bolsover was a popular memento. Alas, no cameras captured him in the Commons library demonstrating the contorted technique of speed-walkers. His father once inquired, “Why tha’ waddling tha’ bloody arse?” in Skinner’s younger days, when he’d top 7mph. Observers didn’t dare.

The Northern Poorhouse minister Andrew Percy moans that he’s been allocated a broom cupboard masquerading as an office in the old part of parliament. My snout claims that Precious Percy grumbled: “It’s so small, my human rights are violated.” Funny how the only “rights” many Tories shout about are their own.

The son of a very prominent Labour figure was caught trying to smuggle friends without passes into the secure conference zone in Liverpool. “Don’t you know who I am?” The cop didn’t, but he does now.

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories