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 head of podcasts at the New Statesman.

PHOTO: ROBERTO RICCIUTI/GETTY IMAGES
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“I want the state to think like an anarchist”: Dutch historian Rutger Bregman on why the left must reclaim utopianism

The Dutch thinker advocates global open borders, a universal basic income and a 15-hour working week. 

History consists of the impossible becoming the inevitable. Universal suffrage, the abolition of slavery and the welfare state were all once dismissed as fantastical dreams. But in the Western world, politics today often feels devoid of the idealism and ambition of previous generations. As the mainstream left has struggled to define its purpose, the right has offered superficially seductive solutions (from Brexit to border walls).

One of those seeking to resolve what he calls a “crisis of imagination” is the Dutch historian and journalist Rutger Bregman. His book Utopia for Realists advocates policies including a universal basic income (a guaranteed minimum salary for all citizens), a 15-hour working week and global open borders. Since its publication last year, Bregman’s manifesto has been translated into more than 20 languages, establishing him as one of Europe’s pre-eminent young thinkers.

“I was born in 1988, one year before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and people of my generation were taught that utopian dreams are dangerous,” Bregman recalled when we met for coffee at the London office of his publisher Bloomsbury. A softly-spoken but forceful character, dressed casually in a light blue jacket, jeans and Nike Air trainers, Bregman continued: “It seemed that the age of big ideas was over. Politics had just become technocracy and politicians just managers.”

Bregman’s imagination was fired by anarchist thinkers such as the Russian philosopher Peter Kropotkin. He identifies with the left libertarian tradition, which emphasises individual freedom from both market and state domination. Another formative influence was Russell Jacoby, Bregman’s history professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, whose book The Last Intellectuals (2000) lamented the decline of the polymath in an era of academic specialisation. Utopia for Realists, a rigorously argued and lucidly written work, fuses insights from history, politics, philosophy and economics. Bregman echoes Oscar Wilde’s sentiment: “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at.”

Such romanticism partly filled the void left by Bregman’s loss of religious faith at the age of 18 (his father was a Protestant minister in the church opposite the family home in Zoetermeer, western Netherlands). “Maybe utopianism is my form of religion in a world without God,” Bregman mused.

For him, utopia is not a dogma to be ruthlessly imposed but a liberating and inclusive vision. It would be “completely ludicrous”, Bregman remarked, for a Western politician to suddenly propose global open borders. Rather, such ideals should animate progressive reforms: one could call it incremental utopianism.

“History will tell you that borders are not inevitable, they hardly existed at the end of the 19th century,” Bregman observed. “And the data is behind me.” Economists liken the present system to leaving “trillion-dollar bills on the sidewalk” and estimate that allowing migrants to move to any country they choose would increase global GDP by between 67 and 147 per cent.

The thoughtful Conservative MP Nick Boles recently objected to a universal basic income on the grounds that “mankind is hard-wired to work. We gain satisfaction from it. It gives us a sense of identity, purpose and belonging”.

Bregman did not dispute this but argued for a radical redefinition of work. “A YouGov poll in 2015 found that 37 per cent of British workers think their own job is absolutely meaningless,” he noted. Rather than such “bullshit jobs” (to use the anthropologist David Graeber’s phrase), work should be defined as “doing something of value, making this world a little more interesting, richer, beautiful – whether that’s paid or unpaid doesn’t really matter.”

In Utopia for Realists, Bregman decries “underdog socialism”: a left that is defined by what it is against (austerity, privatisation, racism), rather than what it is for. How does he view the ascent of Jeremy Corbyn? “Most of the ideas are sensible but they’re a bit old-fashioned, it felt like stepping into a time machine,” Bregman said of the 2017 Labour manifesto (which majored on renationalisation). Yet he recognised that Corbyn had expanded the limits of the possible. “All this time, people were saying that Labour shouldn’t become too radical or it will lose votes. The election showed that, in fact, Labour wasn’t radical enough.”

“We need a completely different kind of democracy, a society where you don’t think purely in terms of representation,” Bregman explained, citing the Brazilian city Porto Alegre’s pioneering experiments in participatory democracy (citizens’ assemblies, for instance, determine public spending priorities). “I call it the anarchist state. The anarchists want to abolish the state; what I want to do is to make the state think like an anarchist.”

Rutger Bregman has a fundamentally optimistic view of human nature: “People are pretty nice” (his next book will challenge “the long intellectual history in the West that says, deep down, we’re all animals, we’re all beasts”).

He dismissed those who cite the 20th century – the age of Stalinism and fascism – as proof of the ruinous consequences of utopian thought. “People are always yearning for a bigger story to be part of, it’s not enough to live our own private lives. If you don’t give them [people] hope, they’ll go for something else.” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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