Kristine Opolais as Manon and Jonas Kaufmann as Des Grieux in "Manon Lescaut". Photograph: Bill Cooper/Royal Opera House
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Uneasy futility at the opera: Manon Lescaut and In the Penal Colony

Alexandra Coghlan reviews Jonathan Kent’s new production of Manon Lescaut at the Royal Opera House and Shadwell Opera’s In The Penal Colony at the Arts Theatre.

Opera audiences are a fickle bunch. They embrace Puccini’s Mimì as a beloved heroine, yet have a much more ambivalent relationship with the composer’s other flawed heroine Manon – younger and far more vulnerable to the schemings of others than Mimì. That Jonathan Kent’s new production of Manon Lescaut at the Royal Opera House should be the company’s first for 30 years says a lot about the work’s uneasy place in the repertoire; that it should be so determinedly, aggressively grim says rather more about why.

Kent’s Manon emerges from a people-carrier into a grimily kitsch contemporary apartment block, complete with gambling club and hordes of neon-clad, disaffected youth. Recaptured by Geronte, she finds herself in a soft-porn, MTV dolls’ house, complete with hot-pink accents and wipe-clean furniture. A row of bald old men watch as she preens and gyrates for their entertainment.

Is it shocking? As a contemporary parable about the unscrupulous exploitation of the sex industry, perhaps, but as an opera production? Not so much.

The production, designed by Paul Brown, is rather too self-conscious about its visual and dramatic provocations. They feel non-committal, experimental, their excesses safely anchored by the heart-on-sleeve romanticism of Antonio Pappano’s conducting and very prim surtitle translations. The result feels like a rather uneasy negotiation between what Royal Opera House audiences actually like and what the director thinks they ought to like – a sideways glance toward European theatre, without ever meeting its uncompromising gaze.

But the music is a different story. Here everything is 19th-century romance and passion. There are no gimmicks powerful enough to distract from Pappano’s orchestra – emotionally urgent but never indulgent, powering though this fine score with all the conviction that the drama lacked.

In two of this season’s most exciting role debuts, both soprano Kristine Opolais and tenor Jonas Kaufmann appear for the first time as star-thwarted lovers Manon and Des Grieux. Kaufmann’s baritonal colour lends a maturity to this impulsive character, supplementing some of the depth that Puccini forgets to write for him in the careful vocal shading. It’s beautiful, exceptional singing, but dramatically perhaps a little too striking. We feel so confident in the young lover that we lose the doubts that are essential to the unfolding tension. Opolais warms from an understated opening innocence to an astonishing climax in Act IV, and I only wish that Brown’s David Lynch-inspired final set hadn’t distracted so strongly from the intimate intensity of this final encounter. Christopher Maltman rounds out the principals with vocal swagger as man-on-the-make Lescaut.

Though musically exceptional, I fear this might just be the production to condemn Manon to another 30 years in storage, lacking as it does the same courage of conviction we find in Puccini’s complicated, misguided heroine.

From the excess of Puccini to the ascetic minimalism of Philip Glass. Just down the road from the Royal Opera House, in the Arts Theatre, young company Shadwell Opera are currently staging In The Penal Colony, the composer’s vividly unsettling response to Franz Kafka’s story.

Kafka and Glass are a natural fit, both delighting in futility, in the art of endless repetitions and formal processes. The only mercy shown by Kafka in his brutal parable In the Penal Colony is that he writes it as a short story. During the hour or so it takes to read you can look away, skim the worst of the horrors. The same is not true of Glass. Though a chamber piece, played here straight through in a single unfolding act, the work is long enough to pierce the emotional skin, to force an audience rather further beyond comfort.

Kitty Callister’s minimal designs – a rattan chair, a tent – suggest a colonial environment but otherwise Jack Furness’s production keeps its options open – allusive as well as elusive. What’s being played out here is a human drama, indifferent to creed, colour, politics or location. The accompanying string quartet and conductor Matthew Fletcher share the stage, breaking any comforting illusion of fiction. In case anyone was still left clinging to it, Andrew Dickinson’s Visitor emerges from the audience onto the stage – one of us, he may as well state, and nor more and no less complicit.

In The Penal Colony is an opera that stands or falls with its cast, and Shadwell Opera have assembled some exciting young talent. Dickinson is that rarest of things, a genuine high tenor, tackling Glass’s unforgiving lines with tone and personality, never letting the technical demands intrude into characterisation. His pen-pushing, nervously polite Visitor is set against Nicholas Morris as The Officer – radiant with misplaced zeal and fanaticism. Morris’s is a muscular baritone in the Maltman mould, and a voice I’d like to hear a lot more of in future. All the singers are well supported by string quintet The Perks Ensemble.

The early simplicity of Furness’s production is traded in later in the show for some very graphic visuals – all the more shocking for emerging from nowhere. It’s not Titus Andronicus, but it certainly cuts to the violent heart of Kafka’s story; suddenly we’re not talking about the idea of torture so much as torture itself, a dramatic sleight-of-hand that’s elegantly handled.

My only complaint of this, the UK’s second production of Glass’s opera, is that like the repetitions of Kafka’s machine, Glass’s mechanistic arpeggios ultimately fail to bring enlightenment. But as to whether that is a deliberate choice or a failure – that’s a matter of taste.

PHOTO: URSZULA SOLTYS
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Othering, micro-aggressions and subtle prejudice: growing up black and British

Afua Hirsch’s memoir Brit(ish) adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK

As every economic or political immigrant knows, the real enigma of arrival is to look in two directions. Immigrants gaze back at the homelands and family they have left behind; and they look anxiously at the customs, language and laws of the country they have adopted. Making sense of both can take a lifetime.

Afua Hirsch, the author of Brit(ish), who has worked at Sky News and the Guardian, was born in Norway to a British father and Ghanaian mother and grew up in prosperous Wimbledon, south-west London. She studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford before graduating in law. Her experience of violent racism seems to be limited, but she writes of the cumulative toll of regular infractions while studying and working as a lawyer and journalist, described as acts of “othering”, “micro-aggressions” and “subtle prejudice”.

Of visiting a shop near her home, she writes: “The harshest lessons came in my late teens, visiting my best friend at work at a boutique in Wimbledon Village. The manager told her I could not come in. ‘It’s off-putting to the other customers,’ she said, ‘and the black girls are thieves. Tell her she’s not welcome.’” On another occasion, a man on the Underground threatened to beat Hirsch with his belt because “you people are out of control”. The incidents coincided with a growing curiosity about her mother’s homeland, which is common to many second-generation children. Hirsch first visited Accra with her mother in 1995: “I don’t think I had realised that there was a world in which black people could be in charge.” In the early 2000s, she worked for a development organisation and was based in Senegal for two years. A decade later, as recession and austerity gripped Europe, she returned to Accra as the Guardian’s West Africa correspondent.

Half a century ago, Hirsch would have been described as a “returnee”; in 2012, the changing nature of global wealth and identity saw the brief rise of a more assertive term, “Afropolitan”.

But Ghana failed to provide Hirsch with an enduring sense of arrival. “For someone like me, Britishness contains the threat of exclusion,” she writes. “An exclusion only made more sinister by discovering – after so many years of searching – that there is nowhere else to go.” Like Filipinos returning home after decades in the Arabian Gulf, Hirsch felt like a privileged outsider who ostensibly viewed a poor country from the safety of a guarded community.

This section of Brit(ish) provides some of the memoir’s most valuable insights. It also could have benefited from more detail; I would have liked to have learned if, like expat Indians who have returned to Mumbai or Bangalore over the last 20 years, Hirsch considered immersing herself in Ghana’s roaring economy by opening a business. She is currently collaborating on a clothing line inspired by Ghanaian culture.

In the end, personal safety prompted an abrupt withdrawal from Accra. Hirsch and her partner returned to the UK after they were attacked on a beach on the outskirts of the Ghanaian capital. In the harrowing incident, her earrings were ripped from her earlobes and her ring was stolen. The attack also marked an introduction to an under-resourced and inept justice system. On the day of the first court appearance of the assailants, Hirsch’s partner was asked to pick them up and drive them to the hearing.

The most interesting segments of the book aren’t those that dwell on racial theory; Hirsch has yet to coalesce her views on her British and Ghanaian heritage into a unified argument. That usually takes most writers a lifetime. Brit(ish) has more in common with memoirs by other immigrants and their children whose search for education and prosperity transitions to a longer quest for identity. ER Braithwaite, the author of To Sir, With Love, wrote about what it felt like to be a second-class citizen in the UK, despite decades of service to the education sector:

In spite of my years of residence in Britain, any service I might render the community in times of war or peace, any contribution I might make or wish to make, or any feeling of identity I might entertain towards Britain and the British, I – like all other coloured persons in Britain – am considered an “immigrant”.

Hirsch’s book is also less sure about how other immigrant groups view their British experience. For instance, she cites the return of present-day South Asians to the subcontinent as being partly due to racism, but a departing diaspora, resettling in India and Pakistan for reasons such as accumulated wealth or community, has been a fixture of British life since the 1950s. A more interesting detour would have seen an exploration of British Muslims, often wrongly charged with disloyalty to the UK by commentators such as Trevor Phillips, who selectively pick out the most extreme views on integration and religion.

Instead, the memoir offers clearer ideas on how the UK could do more to acknowledge its role in the slave trade and colonialism. In the book’s most searing sections, Hirsch rightly suggests there is more to be achieved in correcting Britain’s memorials to empire – those permanent exhibitions in museums, statues and plaques that fail to acknowledge the sins of colonialism.

For instance, for 300 years, every British monarch gave direct or indirect support to the transatlantic slave trade until it was abolished in 1833. Of the 12 million slaves abducted from Africa, 40 per cent were transported on British ships. We are told slavery was outlawed on humanitarian grounds in a campaign fought by abolitionists. In reality, an overproduction of sugar crops led to reduced profits.

In Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944, Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, described the idea that slavery was abolished because of an appeal to humanitarian principles as “one of the greatest propaganda movements of all time”.

Hirsch argues these old ideas continue to hinder diversity. In 2013, only 23 students of black British African heritage were given paces to study at Oxford University. In 2016, one third of all people stopped by the police in England and Wales under “stop and search” laws were from ethnic minority backgrounds. Hirsch also highlights the worrying uptick in violence after the Brexit vote in June 2016. In the four months after the referendum, there was a 41 per cent increase in racially and religiously motivated crimes.

British public life is full of the talented children of Ghanaians who have written about racism and the push for acceptance, including rappers such as Tinchy Stryder, Dizzee Rascal and Sway. Just as Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking book, Staying Power: the History of Black People in Britain, did in 1984, Afua Hirsch’s memoir adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK. As she writes, an island nation that has benefited from centuries of immigration should reframe the question it asks some of its citizens: “I can’t be British, can I, if British people keep asking me where I’m from?” 

Burhan Wazir is an editor at WikiTribune and former head of opinion at Al Jazeera. Afua Hirsch will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Sunday 15th April.

Brit(ish): on Race, Identity and Belonging
Afua Hirsch
Jonathan Cape, 384pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist