ALASTAIR MUIR
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At Wigmore Hall, I hear the classical version of “Heads, shoulders, knees and toes”

Membra Jesu Nostri is set in seven sections, each corresponding to a party of the body. Plus: Rigoletto at the London Coliseum.

How many pieces of music do you know that are devoted solely to feet? Sadly, given the human foot’s vital role in our everyday lives, the Western classical canon isn’t exactly bursting with odes to insteps and ankles. The playground song “Heads, shoulders, knees and toes” comes closest, though its sing-song rhythms have so far excluded it from the world’s concert halls.

Yet in 1680 the Danish-German composer Dieterich Buxtehude produced a set of cantatas, known as Membra Jesu Nostri, which has much in common with the ­well-known children’s ditty. Each of its seven parts is devoted to observation and celebration of a specified part of the body, from “Ad pedes” (“to the feet”) through to “Ad faciem”, or “to the face”. The body in question is Christ’s, and the Latin text for each section is extracted from a medieval hymn, with the words chosen for their exploration of a particular part of the body hanging on the cross.

As performed on 20 February by members of the renowned early music ensemble the Sixteen, the suite was absorbing and lyrical. Under the direction of Harry Christophers, the dissonances between individual vocal and instrumental lines were brought out skilfully and the mood varied according to the music, without the presentation ever feeling indulgent or over the top.

It is unclear what Buxtehude saw as the purpose of the work, each of whose carefully crafted odes contains both an instrumental sonata and an intricate choral work. He worked for decades as the organist at the Marienkirche in the northern German city of Lübeck and spent most of his time playing for church services, rather than composing or staging choral works. The Membra Jesu Nostri, it has been speculated, was perhaps rather composed for private religious gatherings or prayer meetings. Its solemn, melancholy strains would assist in focusing prayer on one particular aspect of Christ’s crucified body in turn.

Buxtehude played a part in the newly emerging Protestant sacred music, experimenting with the intersection between melody and liturgy and laying the groundwork for the coming, 25 years later, of perhaps the greatest Lutheran composer of all: Johann Sebastian Bach. In the poignant soprano lines of the climactic sixth cantata, “Ad cor” (“to the heart”), it is possible to hear a nascent quality that came to fruition in Bach’s great Easter compositions of the 1720s, the St Matthew and St John passions.

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In the production notes for his 1982 production of Rigoletto for English National Opera, Jonathan Miller described its setting as “gangland limbo”, a version of Little Italy in 1950s New York City, where the 16th-century Mantuan nobleman of Verdi’s original becomes the “Duke”, a Mafia boss with a chorus of hoodlums to assist him in his evil deeds. In a 1989 review of the opera’s televised broadcast, the New York Times described the decision to update the setting as “provocative”. Thirty-five years on, it may no longer have the power to shock audiences but it’s still splendid entertainment.

The moral dilemmas and class hierarchies of the story are made more comprehensible by the 20th-century setting, too. Rigoletto is no longer a court jester but the barman at the Duke’s hotel, where the boss’s favoured lieutenants enjoy baiting him and ­making his job harder by deliberately dropping peanuts everywhere. Is it any wonder he becomes consumed by a desire for revenge when they mistreat his daughter?

In this 13th revival (25-28 February), the original sets from Miller’s production were refreshed to give them a mid-century-modern, almost Hopper-esque feel. Slicked-back hair and sharp suits were everywhere, and the women’s tight 1950s evening gowns fit the period setting perfectly when one of them emerged, disarranged and distressed, from an offstage encounter with the Duke.

Joshua Guerrero gave a vocally secure performance as the Duke, including a raucous version of “La donna è mobile”, although he is somewhat lacking in the lethal blend of charisma and malice that Verdi’s score demands from the character. Nicholas Pallesen as Rigoletto acted rather better than he sang, but his duets with Sydney Mancasola’s Gilda were evocative and moving. The great thrill of this revival, though, came from Nicholas Folwell as Monterone. Resplendent in a Godfather-inspired coat with fur collar, Folwell packed into his short lines all the indignation and fury of an ageing father whose daughter has been seduced and discarded by the Duke. 

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

This article first appeared in the 02 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The far right rises again

Photo: Prime Images
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The Sad Part Was: this story collection puts the real Bangkok on display

Thai author Prabda Yoon descends into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters.

In Bangkok’s budding literary scene, Prabda Yoon sits at the centre. Born in 1973, he’s the scion of a well-known family (his father Suthichai Sae-Yoon is the co-founder of the Nation newspaper) and is known in Thailand as not only an enfant terrible of letters but as an illustrator, screen-writer and director (his first film, Motel Mist, was shown at European festivals in 2016).

His reputation rests mainly on a collection of short stories published in 2000 entitled in Thai Kwam Na Ja Pen, roughly translated as Probability, and it is from this early collection that most of the stories now collected in The Sad Part Was are derived. Translated with cool elegance by Mui Poopoksakul, they are among the first modern Thai stories to be published in the UK.

As Poopoksakul points out in her afterword, she and Yoon are the products of similar backgrounds and epochs: upper-middle class children of Bangkok who came to consciousness in the late Eighties and Nineties. Often foreign-educated, fluent in English and conversant in global pop culture and media – Yoon did a stint at Parsons in New York after prep school at the Cambridge School of Weston – this new generation of Thai writers and artists were born into a society changing so fast that they had to virtually invent a new language to transcribe it.

In The Sad Part Was, the result is stories that one could glibly label as “post-modern” but which, in reality, perfectly match the qualities of the megacity where they are set. Bangkok is infamously mired in lurid contradiction, but it’s also a city of subtle and distorted moods that journalism and film have hitherto mostly failed to capture. The whimsical and playful surfaces of these stories have to be read against the high-octane anxieties and surreal dislocations of what was, until recently, one of the fastest-growing cities in the world.

Yoon uses the short form of the ten-page story to descend into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters: a schoolgirl and a beautiful female teacher who form a platonic lesbian infatuation while riding a daily bus in “Miss Space”; a couple making love during a thunderstorm whose activities are interrupted by the dismantling of two giant letters, which fall onto their roof in “Something in the Air”; a young man who meets a mysterious older man in Lumpini Park called Ei Ploang, who forces him to consider the intertwined nature of good and evil. In “Snow for Mother”, a mother waits for her little boy to grow up so that she can take him to Alaska to experience the real snow, which he never knew as a little boy in the tropics.

In “The Sharp Sleeper”, a man named Natee obsesses over losing his shirt buttons and is led into a strange reverie on the nature of dreams and the competing qualities of red and yellow pyjama shirts (Thailand’s political culture is riven by two parties popularly known as Red and Yellow Shirts). The commentary slips into effortless sarcasm:

Natee has proudly worn the red pyjama shirt several times since then, and his dream personality hasn’t altered at all. On the contrary, the shirt has encouraged him to become a man of conviction in his waking life. As to what those convictions were supposed to be, Natee wasn’t quite sure. But it was safe to say that a night shirt so principled wouldn’t drop a button so easily.

Since these stories were written, Bangkok’s political schizophrenia has lost its former air of apathy and innocence, but Yoon’s tone is quietly prescient about the eruption of violent irrationality a few years later. It’s a reminder how precious the subtlety of fiction is when set against the shrill certitudes of activism and reportage.

My favorite story here is “Something in the Air”. Its dialogues are written with hilariously archaic, bureaucratic formality, while delving into the disorientation of sexual and romantic hopes in the present century. After the couple’s love-making is interrupted, the young man suggests insolently to the woman that they resume in the open air, exposed to the furious elements. She agrees. They then notice that a dead body is lying on the roof nearby, crushed by the giant letters.

While waiting for the police to arrive, the woman sits quietly and describes her future, a happily married future in which her current lover will play no part whatsoever. He listens in melancholy astonishment until the couple are called to give their testimonies about the dead man. The officers then suspect that the couple themselves have done something scandalous – and so, stung by shame, the woman considers breaking off the relationship and setting in motion her own prophesy.

The Sad Part Was is unique in the contemporary literature of Bangkok – it doesn’t feature bar girls, white men, gangsters or scenes redolent of The Hangover Part II. Instead it reveals, sotto voce, the Thai voices that are swept up in their own city’s wild confusion and energy, and it does so obliquely, by a technique of partial revelation always susceptible to tenderness.

Lawrence Osborne is a British novelist living in Bangkok. His next book, “Beautiful Animals”, will be published by Hogarth in August

The Sad Part Was
Prabda Yoon
Tilted Axis Press, 192pp, £8.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder