Benjamin Britten's Curlew River at St Giles, Cripplegate: Madness, grief and the inspiration of Noh

Britten's Curlew River, a "church parable" which is currently being performed at St Giles, Cripplegate in the City of London, was inspired by a surprise encounter on a trip the composer took to Tokyo in 1956.

I’ve just returned from the dress rehearsal of Curlew River at St Giles Cripplegate in the City of London. This moated church was originally built in the 12th century and is now enclosed by the concrete towers of the Barbican Centre.

It’s a strange island outpost but an apt setting for one of Britten’s most unusual and – I think I’m right in saying – least performed works.

It’s an opera about a mother who has lost her child. It’s sung by an all-male cast and consists of just a few characters: the mother (called ‘the madwoman’ because she is wracked by grief); the ferryman; and the traveller.

It’s a very simple story: the madwoman arrives at the bank of the Curlew River. She’s in a state of distraction and begs the ferryman, who’s dismissive of her plight, to let her come on board. In desperation, she explains she is searching for someone, and eventually the ferryman relents.

As they cross the river, the ferryman explains that this day is an important anniversary. A year ago a boy died by the Curlew River, having been abandoned by his cruel master. The boy’s tomb is now a site of pilgrimage.

As the ferryman tells the story, it becomes apparent that the boy who died is the madwoman’s son. On disembarking from the boat, she is taken to the graveside to say a prayer for his soul. At the end of the opera, the boy appears to the assembled company and blesses his mother.

Britten called this small-scale opera a church parable and wrote it to be performed in Orford church near his home at Aldeburgh. The first production was in 1964, but the idea for Curlew River had been planted in the composer’s mind eight years earlier – in Tokyo.

On a world tour with his partner Peter Pears in 1956, Britten had stopped off in Japan and seen a fifteenth century Noh play called Sumidagawa or The Sumida River.

Britten’s first reaction to the play was to laugh. As Britten scholar Mervyn Cooke points out, Britten may have found the distinctive warbling of the singers reminiscent of Spike Milligan’s Eccles in The Goon Show.

But Britten’s initial embarrassment was supplanted by deep interest. It was clear to him that his experience of the Noh play would form the basis for a work of his own.

Before he could get round to it, however, there were other projects to tackle – in particular the War Requiem, an incredibly elaborate choral work commissioned for the consecration of Coventry Cathedral in 1962. After its completion he sought a change of direction and Curlew River provided the outlet.

Like Sumidagawa, Curlew River has a small number of soloists and a chorus. Like the Noh play, it is sung by an all-male cast, wearing masks and acting the story through sparse, stylized movements. The libretto of Curlew River was closely based on an English translation of Sumidagawa; and Britten used flute, drums and bells to inflect the score with the air of Japanese music.

This, however, is the where the comparison ends. Britten took the story of Sumidagawa and transposed it to the East Anglian fenlands. He also framed the story as a medieval mystery play, and replaced the Buddhist reference points with Christian ones. Monks enter the church singing a plainsong chant and the abbot, at their head, announces that they are going to act out a story.

As the monks remove their habits and disperse about the stage, the three main characters emerge: the madwoman, the ferryman and the traveller. In this production, they are played by Ian Bostridge, Mark Stone and Neal Davies, and directed by Netia Jones.

On paper, it doesn’t seem at all surprising that Curlew River is difficult to stage. It’s not big enough for an opera house and tricky to pull off in a theatre. It’s a bizarre fusion of mystery play and Noh play, and comes with a wodge of notes by the first director Colin Graham, prescribing rules for how it should be performed.

But in Netia Jones’ interpretation, which pays no heed to past productions and concentrates purely on the emotional core of the story, the opera feels startling resonant and true.

It’s extraordinary that Britten should have written a work of such power based on a Japanese play which he could hardly have understood as he was watching it. But perhaps this is the experience he intends us to have in the audience of Curlew River. The characters are like abstract cut outs – open to interpretation, almost like vessels to be filled by the voices of the singers, shapes onto which we can project our imaginations.

The director Netia Jones suggests this idea to us by projecting monochrome film footage onto a blank, white stage. The madwoman, dressed in a long black robe, appears neither male nor female: she simply represents a figure of grief, rather than a character in any realistic sense. Ian Bostridge’s tall, ethereal physical presence intensifies the effect; you completely forget that he is a man playing a woman’s role.

The fact that the story is being acted out by monks who are themselves played by singers implicates the audience in the drama all the more fully. By recognizing that the drama is just a construction we are, conversely, more aware of its connection to real life.

Very little actually happens in the opera, but the relationships between the characters are closely observed. It takes a long time for the madwoman to persuade the ferryman to give her a place in his boat. He enjoys ridiculing her crazy behaviour and mocking her pretensions.

While the ferryman is unmoved by the madwoman’s condition, the traveller is more immediately responsive to her plight, and the chorus, who represent the other passengers, are easily swayed in either direction. Only when it’s revealed that the dead boy is the madwoman’s son does the ferryman show pity and lead her to the boy’s grave.

As the ferryman turns to makes preparations for the return crossing and the other passengers proceed with their journeys, there is a horrifying moment when it seems that the fragile bonds of sympathy that have developed between the characters will once more evaporate, leaving the madwoman to contend with her grief alone.

The ferryman hasn’t time to stop for long before making the return journey. The traveller is (as he tells us) continually on the move. Even the characters themselves will shortly revert to being monks and turn their backs on the story they’ve just brought to life. But the madwoman has nowhere to turn. She remains on stage and in our imaginations, calling for our sympathies. 

Britten’s first church parable does not offer us Christian consolation, despite its ending. It allows us to experience the rush of hope in the madwoman’s heart as her child is heard faintly singing. But the child’s benediction is not echoed in the music. The plainsong that closes the opera is exactly the same as the chant we hear at the beginning.

Are we to be left with this disturbing feeling of circularity? Perhaps. But perhaps a change has occurred in the audience’s minds. The effect of Curlew River is to heighten our sensitivity and enlarge our sympathies, not just for the plight of the madwoman but for the people she represents.

Curlew River will be performed as part of the Barbican Britten Festival in London on 14 - 16 November.

Curlew River is also the subject of a Radio 4 programme, produced by Isabel Sutton, on BBC Radio 4 at 11.30 on 19 November. The programme is a Just Radio production.

St Giles, Cripplegate, between the Brutalist towers of the Barbican Estate. Photograph: Getty Images.

Isabel Sutton is a radio producer and journalist.

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Meet Anne Marie Waters - the Ukip politician too extreme for Nigel Farage

In January 2016, Waters launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). 

There are few people in British political life who can be attacked from the left by Nigel Farage. Yet that is where Anne Marie Waters has found herself. And by the end of September she could well be the new leader of Ukip, a party almost synonymous with its beer-swilling, chain-smoking former leader.

Waters’s political journey is a curious one. She started out on the political left, but like Oswald Mosley before her, has since veered dramatically to the right. That, however, is where the similarities end. Waters is Irish, agnostic, a lesbian and a self-proclaimed feminist.

But it is her politics – rather than who she is – that have caused a stir among Ukip’s old guard. Former leader Paul Nuttall has said that her views make him “uncomfortable” while Farage has claimed Ukip is “finished” if, under her leadership, it becomes an anti-Islam party.

In her rhetoric, Waters echoes groups such as the English Defence League (EDL) and Britain First. She has called Islam “evil” and her leadership manifesto claims that the religion has turned Britain into a “fearful and censorious society”. Waters wants the banning of the burqa, the closure of all sharia councils and a temporary freeze on all immigration.

She started life in Dublin before moving to Germany in her teens to work as an au pair. Waters also lived in the Netherlands before returning to Britain to study journalism at Nottingham Trent University, graduating in 2003. She subsequently gained a second degree in law. It was then, she says, that she first learnt about Islam, which she claims treats women “like absolute dirt”. Now 39, Waters is a full-time campaigner who lives in Essex with her two dogs and her partner who is an accountant.

Waters’s first spell of serious activism was with the campaign group One Law for All, a secularist organisation fronted by the Iranian feminist and human rights activist Maryam Namazie. Waters resigned in November 2013 after four years with the organisation. According to Namazie, Waters left due to political disagreements over whether the group should collaborate with members of far-right groups.

In April 2014, Waters founded Sharia Watch UK and, in January 2016, she launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). The group was established as a British chapter of the German-based organisation and was set up to counter what it called the “Islamisation of our countries”. By the summer of 2016, it had petered out.

Waters twice stood unsuccessfully to become a Labour parliamentary candidate. Today, she says she could not back Labour due to its “betrayal of women” and “betrayal of the country” over Islam. After joining Ukip in 2014, she first ran for political office in the Lambeth council election, where she finished in ninth place. At the 2015 general election, Waters stood as the party’s candidate in Lewisham East, finishing third with 9.1 per cent of the vote. She was chosen to stand again in the 2016 London Assembly elections but was deselected after her role in Pegida UK became public. Waters was also prevented from standing in Lewisham East at the 2017 general election after Ukip’s then-leader Nuttall publicly intervened.

The current favourite of the 11 candidates standing to succeed Nuttall is deputy leader Peter Whittle, with Waters in second. Some had hoped the party’s top brass would ban her from standing but last week its national executive approved her campaign.

Due to an expected low turnout, the leadership contest is unpredictable. Last November, Nuttall was elected with just 9,622 votes. More than 1,000 new members reportedly joined Ukip in a two-week period earlier this year, prompting fears of far-right entryism.

Mike Hookem MEP has resigned as Ukip’s deputy whip over Waters’ candidacy, saying he would not “turn a blind eye” to extremism. By contrast, chief whip, MEP Stuart Agnew, is a supporter and has likened her to Joan of Arc. Waters is also working closely on her campaign with Jack Buckby, a former BNP activist and one of the few candidates to run against Labour in the by-election for Jo Cox’s former seat of Batley and Spen. Robinson is another backer.

Peculiarly for someone running to be the leader of a party, Waters does not appear to relish public attention. “I’m not a limelight person,” she recently told the Times. “I don’t like being phoned all the time.”

The journalist Jamie Bartlett, who was invited to the initial launch of Pegida UK in Luton in 2015, said of Waters: “She failed to remember the date of the demo. Her head lolled, her words were slurred, and she appeared to almost fall asleep while Tommy [Robinson] was speaking. After 10 minutes it all ground to an uneasy halt.”

In an age when authenticity is everything, it would be a mistake to underestimate yet another unconventional politician. But perhaps British Muslims shouldn’t panic about Anne Marie Waters just yet.

James Bloodworth is editor of Left Foot Forward

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