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.

FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images
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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism