Bryn Terfel and Emma Thompson in Sweeney Todd at the ENO. Photo: Tristran Kenton
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Meat is murder: Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel in Sweeney Todd at the London Coliseum

A subversive semi-staging of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd brings the infamous barber back to London.

Sweeney Todd
English National Opera, London WC2

Sweeney Todd is an urban legend, in every sense. The vicious barber who slits his customers’ throats and sends their bodies down a chute to be turned into pie filling may first have appeared in a London penny dreadful in 1846, but he has been reincarnated on stage, on screen and in print so often since that his origins have acquired a distinctly mythic quality. The man himself shifts and adapts, but he unfailingly inhabits the same city. The demon barber of Fleet Street will always be found in London.

This semi-staged production of Stephen Sondheim’s musical thriller welcomes Sweeney back home. First performed at New York’s Lincoln Center last year, it has come to the London Coliseum as the first instance of what the ENO promises will be an ongoing commitment to “world-class musical theatre”. But is that how we should describe the great composer’s Sweeney Todd? Opera houses and critics traditionally have very little time for “lower” forms of culture like musicals – a little Gilbert and Sullivan may be permissible, but anything that premiered on Broadway starring Angela Lansbury is surely beyond the pale.

Sondheim has always defied such lazy characterisation, and in the last decade or so it seems as if the classical musical establishment has finally caught on. In the casting for this version, the tired old question – opera or operetta? musical or thriller? – is emphatically rebuffed. Bryn Terfel, the internationally renowned Welsh baritone famed for his interpretations of Mozart and Wagner, is Sweeney. Emma Thompson, Oscar-winning actress and screenwriter, is his scheming, wheedling partner-in-crime Mrs Lovett. It’s a winning combination: the booming baritone and the consummate comedian look an unlikely pair, but they fit these roles perfectly.

Photo: Tristran Kenton

In a glorious bit of sleight of hand, we’re led to believe this semi-staged production will be a formal, conventional affair. As you would expect the orchestra is at the heart of everything, occupying the centre stage. We applaud the leader and the conductor as they come to take their places. The soloists file on to stand before the music stands ranged at the front of the stage. The overture begins, but after the first few lines Terfel and Thompson exchange dark glances and then push their scores on to the floor.

In the next few minutes, the stage is turned upside down. A grand piano is overturned, flower arrangements are upset, tailcoats and ballgowns are shredded. The grand red velvet curtains at the back of the stage part to reveal a collage of graffiti. The symbols and slogans of anarchy and anti-capitalism are everywhere: Occupy, the 99 per cent, revolution. Even the back of the conductor’s jacket is split to reveal a bloody handprint on his shirt beneath. Fists raised, the chorus bursts into Sondheim’s dissonant, challenging score. The message is clear. This is a Sweeney Todd of disruption, chaos and subversion.

Even though this is far from a static semi-staging, the orchestra remains integral to everything. As well as being the show’s musical foundation, it provides the props: the meat grinder in Mrs Lovett’s grisly pie shop operation is a trombone, she kneads her foul dough on top of a kettle drum, and when she needs a stool she pinches one from a double bass player. Thompson excels in this kind of mischievous business. Her rendition of the act one finale, “A Little Priest”, is superb. This is the moment when she realises Sweeney’s murderous crusade against the people who destroyed his family is actually a business opportunity. His victims are the meat she needs for her pies. It’s a perverted waltz of a number, which Thompson exploits to the full. Her comic timing glories in Sondheim’s word-play, but there’s always an undercurrent of darkness to her performance. As Sweeney grows enthusiastic about her plan, we see her eyes shine with obsequious devotion. Starved of love, even his twisted affection is enough to secure her absolute loyalty.

Photo: Tristran Kenton

Terfel is a static, monstrous Sweeney, all rumbling menace and terrible stillness. Although Thompson’s voice stands up surprisingly well to his baritone roar, Terfel’s best vocal duet is with Philip Quast as Judge Turpin. With his enemy helpless in his barber’s chair, Sweeney toys with him, filling his voice with menace only to proceed calmly with the shave.

It is at moments like this that the unconventional staging really proves its worth. Conductor David Charles Abell stands with baton poised, heightening the tension before slicing down into the music. Above, Terfel mirrors him precisely, his razor held aloft before bringing it down towards his victim’s throat. There might be less gore than in a full stage version, but this is certainly a bloody good way to experience Sondheim’s music.

Sweeney Todd is at the London Coliseum until 12 April. www.eno.org

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

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How Tetsuya Mizuguchi reinvented video games with his love of synaesthesia

The Japanese designer on using music, movement, art and colour to create truly pioneering games.

It has taken six months and communicating across three different time zones to finally speak to Tetsuya Mizuguchi. Somehow, we’ve finally managed to meet on a gloriously sunny afternoon in Brighton. It’s the best chance I’ll have to ask him something I’ve always wanted to know. But I didn’t want to be too rude.

“How do I ask whether you’ve taken any psychedelics?”

“You’re asking about getting high? I’m pretty normal,” replies the pioneering Japanese video game designer. But not before a burst of laughter.

Mizuguchi’s background is unusual for a games industry professional. Having graduated in media aesthetics from Nihon University in Japan, it wasn’t until he saw a photo of Nasa’s VIEW virtual reality (VR) headset that he decided to enter the gaming world by joining Sega in 1990. And this was Sega before they unleashed Sonic the Hedgehog into the world.


Nasa VIEW headset. Photo: Nasa

“We had a long, long history of 2D over 100 years, including movies, TV, games. Everything was 2D and squared,” says Mizuguchi, on the challenges he faced in his early years.

He was tasked with creating one of the first powerful 3D games, Sega Rally, which upon its release in 1994 was unlike anything the industry had seen. It would later influence many other arcade racers for years to come, including Gran Turismo and the Colin McRae Rally series.

However, after one sequel in 1998, Mizuguchi headed for Zurich, where a music festival made him realise the new potential of powerful, modern games by combining visuals, music and player input into one reactive loop.

“I went to the party at night and it was a thousand people not dancing but moving,” he recalls. “The music changed, the sounds changed, the movement changed and the colours changed. I watched from the view and I remembered the word synaesthesia.”

From that moment, he focused primarily on music games, releasing Space Channel 5 (and its sequel), Rez, Lumines and Child of Eden. Despite the critical success of each title, Rez is the game that continues to live on, from its first release on the Dreamcast back in 2001 to a VR-enabled update last year known as Rez Infinite.

You play as a virus flying through the inside of a supercomputer tasked with saving an all-powerful AI named Eden, while fending off attacks from firewalls. The buttons you press, the enemies you attack and the environmental changes all feed into the multisensory game-playing experience.

Rez Infinite via GIPHY

Although it sounds like a bizarre idea for a video game, there’s no denying Rez is a moving, out-of-this-world experience. Mizuguchi reflects on whether anyone outside of Japan could have produced the game. “When I made Rez, we were talking about that all the time. It should be timeless, placeless, cultureless. So we asked what is the deep, deep point of the human being, what is our basic instinct?”

Mizuguchi is an innovative auteur in the same class as fellow game designers such as Hideo Kojima, Sid Meier and Shigeru Miyamoto, who created the Super Mario and Legend of Zelda franchises.

Despite his love of music across many genres, and being a writer and producer for songs and videos (such as those featured in Rez’s spiritual successor Child of Eden), he doesn’t label himself as a musician or game designer, but a “technologist” and “futurist”.

“Technology makes people hunger,” he declares. “I think we are in a transition. I think in ten or 20 years people… won’t be so closed. VR is closed. It’s going to open soon, with talking and mixing with each other. I believe it’s going to get us back to being much more human.”


Tetsuya Mizuguchi talking about synaesthesia. Photo: Emad Ahmed

It’s quite an achievement for a designer to have transferred so fluidly and successfully to different gaming technologies over the years, from 2D to 3D, portable gaming, high definition visuals and now VR. It’s something he says is important for everyone in the industry. “All the time, I have a big influence from new technologies.”

Mizuguchi looks at the PSP handheld console I place on the table at the bustling hotel restaurant. “When I first got this, Ken Kutaragi [known as ‘The Father of the PlayStation’] said, ‘this is an interactive, 21st century Walkman’, and that was the first time I can bring games outside. Music like this, anytime, anywhere, any style.”

This gave him the idea to create Lumines, the music-based handheld puzzle game. “And with Kinect technology, what kind of game can you play? Oh, I want to play like a conductor.” Here, he’s referencing Child of Eden, which gives players the option to use the Xbox’s body-tracking camera instead of the standard button-bashing fare.

Mizuguchi is always thinking about creative design in this holistic way. “I love to combine many elements, the music, the storytelling, many things, as one architecture. I don’t care about the genre, I want to create a fresh new thing. Also, I want to break something,” he laughs.

I share with him a story of my first visit to London’s Tate Modern where I decided to stroll through one of the gift shops and amuse myself with the quirky ornaments being offered to the public. But as I was leaving, a stunning piece of artwork on the wall caught my eye. The Nineties vibe it was radiating was part of the appeal, so you can imagine my shock when I learned it was in fact painted in 1925. It was abstract artist Wassily Kandinsky's Swinging. I bought a print. It’s the same artist I later realise has inspired Mizuguchi all these years, after first seeing Kandinsky’s Red Square in Moscow.



Swinging and Red Square in Moscow by Kandinsky. Photos: Wikimedia Commons

“I love artists from a hundred years ago, I love their concepts,” he responds, explaining how he draws inspiration from them – so much so that he credits Kandinsky at the end of Rez Infinite.

“They have the same kind of image and I’m always thinking about the same dream. Now we have technology, so I believe we can create a much deeper experience,” he says. “It’s a good thing you mention Kandinsky. Maybe it’s a good thing games can be the first encounter with artists. Gaming is also a new art form.”

So what other ideas does the artist in front of me have at the moment?

“Many ideas!” he grins. There’s no doubt that Tetsuya Mizuguchi’s next dance with synaesthesia will be just as exhilarating as his last.

Emad Ahmed writes about science and gaming. He tweets @ThisIsEmad.