A giant head formed the set for the Royal Opera House's Król Roger. Photo: Bill Cooper/ROH
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Król Roger’s music is beautiful – but overwhelmed by constant symbolism

The production makes it very clear what we are supposed to think, which sadly detracts from the variety and ambiguity the composer worked into his score. 

Król Roger
Royal Opera House, London WC2

As soon as the lights come up on the enormous sculpture of a face, you know what you are supposed to think about the Royal Opera House’s take on Karol Szymanowski’s opera Król Roger. This early-20th-century piece by the often-neglected Polish composer is all about inner conflict, and the mesmerising light show that plays across the gigantic features during the overture gives you a visual representation of the competing demands of ego and super-ego.

It’s a subtle and impressive display: the features appear to shift and flicker, a glorious accompaniment to the music. Even before the monarch begins to sing, we have been drawn into his struggle between sensual temptation and religious ­conformity. What with the glittering harmonic brilliance of Szymanowski’s music underscoring this imposing vision, it is several moments before you notice the man kneeling before the great face. He is dwarfed by it – when he stands, his head barely reaches above its lips – and yet this is Król Roger, ruler of a kingdom and the human embodiment of power.

The historical figure who inspired this character, King Roger II of Sicily, ruled in the 12th century, but Kasper Holten’s new production appears to place him nearer the time the work was composed – the 1920s. Double-breasted suits, bobbed hair and cloche hats abound. Yet Roger resists definition. Who is he, this king who bows before the implacable, unknown face?

Szymanowski and his cousin Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz, who wrote the libretto, revelled in creating and sustaining tension and uncertainty. As well as the historical connection, they drew on Euripides’s tragedy The Bacchae as well as the writings of Nietzsche for the heart v head dichotomy at the centre of their drama. Their Roger is a leader under siege, a king struggling to balance the enthusiasm his subjects and his wife feel towards a charismatic new prophet, known as the Shepherd, with the demands of the conservative, orthodox religion of his kingdom. In order better to evoke this, Szymanowski fashions the first act almost as a kind of oratorio, with chorus melodies inspired by the liturgy of the eastern Church underpinning the Shepherd’s alluring, soaring vocal lines.

It is easy to be seduced by this music. Although Szymanowski was a modernist, he blended influences from Wagner, Strauss, Debussy and his fellow Pole Chopin in his impressionistic, richly textured style. The details of the composer’s private life are relatively unknown, perhaps unsurprisingly, as he was homosexual at a time when there was no public recognition or understanding of sexuality. Szymanowski did write a novel about Greek love, titled Efebos, but as only a fragment survives one shouldn’t seek many parallels between the composer and his protagonist.

The production makes it very clear at all times what we are supposed to think, which sadly detracts from the dazzling variety and ambiguity the composer worked into his score. This is particularly obvious in the second act, when the vast face spins round to expose Roger’s “inner life”, the rooms where he resides with his wife, Roxana. As Saimir Pirgu’s delicately floated high notes express the Shepherd’s siren call to the king, writhing, near-naked dancers creep up into his sanctum. Books, representing reason, are cast out. The duality and tension are right there in the music, Roxana’s stunningly chromatic, oriental-influenced melodies overlaying the more western harmonies used by her husband. The added symbolism feels heavy-handed.

Originally, Szymanowski and Iwaszkie­wicz envisaged a straightforward ending to the tale: the king is persuaded by the Shepherd and allows his instinctive, primal self to triumph. However, the composer thought better of this part-way through the writing process and produced the third act without the aid of his librettist. The result is a fascinating, ambiguous sequence in which the king goes in search of the Shepherd and his errant wife, but when the prophet departs Roger does not blindly follow him.

Instead, he takes centre-stage and delivers an extraordinary hymn in salute to the sun. It is the one moment in this production when relentless symbolism is allowed to recede, and it is superb. Mariusz Kwiecien stands bare-chested at the edge of the stage, the effort of delivering Roger’s final C major resolution clearly apparent. Yet this melody still contains hints of the Shepherd’s earlier motifs. “The chain of illusions breaks!” rumbles the king’s adviser Edrisi, looking on, though it is far from clear whose illusions have been fractured.

Caroline Crampton is head of podcasts at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory triumph

Quiz recreates the atmosphere of the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? studio. Credit: JOHAN PERSSON
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Quiz is a fast-paced, hi-tech retelling of the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? cheating scandal

This tale of the “coughing major” is a nostalgic romp through the rise of reality television.

As the interval began at James Graham’s new play, Quiz, I turned to my companion and said: “Wow, this is like telly – in a theatre.” (For clarity, this is a compliment.) This fast-paced, hi-tech production tells the story of the “coughing major” Charles Ingram, who won the top prize on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and then had it taken away again after being accused of cheating.

It provides a nostalgic romp through past ITV shows and the rise of reality television, involves the only audience participation not to make me cringe straight through my seat and into the row behind, and, y’know, also asks whether our memories are so fallible that they are essentially useless, undermining the very nature of truth itself. There’s also a cracking impression of Chris Tarrant.

James Graham is on a roll: last year, the Almeida’s production of his new drama Ink transferred to the West End to the Duke of York, while the theatre next door hosted his original comedy Labour of Love.

The latter, but not the former, won an Olivier Award on 8 April, which is nothing short of a travesty. Labour of Love was a perfectly serviceable romcom ported to a constituency office, but its lighter elements somehow jarred with its ambition to Say Something About The Left. In Ink, on the other hand, the comedy bolstered the play’s moral message rather than undermined it. The play showed how the fun and excitement of the early days of the Sun swelled and distorted until the cheeky smile became a rictus grin; the second half then plunged us into darkness with a grisly murder and the collection of a Faustian bargain.

In Quiz, the comedy performs the same function as it did in Ink: it lulls and seduces the audience, leading them invisibly down a particular path, so they can then be shown how easily they were influenced. The first half is styled as “the case for the prosecution”. We hear that Ingram’s wife Diana and her brother had already appeared on the show, having devised a way to beat the supposedly random selection process. Mrs Ingram had phoned another contestant, college lecturer Tecwen Whittock, whom she vaguely knew, the night before her husband’s second appearance; he was then recorded coughing suspiciously the next day whenever the right multiple choice answer was read out. Hearing all that meant that when we were asked to vote at the interval – using keypads attached to the seats – on Major Ingram’s guilt, the audience delivered an unambiguous verdict: send him down.

Then we discovered that there was another side to the story. Diana Ingram knew Whittock through her brother, so the call could have been innocent; in any case, he claimed to have a dust allergy that made him cough almost uncontrollably. (It would have been like setting up a fiendish conspiracy based around blinking with someone who finds it hard to tolerate contact lenses.)

The hints of disquiet about the manipulative qualities of television present in the first half then bloomed fully with the revelation that the “cough tape” was supplied to the court by the TV company Celador – which gained a million pounds by not paying out the prize, remember. It had been heavily edited, with numerous other “irrelevant” coughs removed. Voting again at the end, a majority would have let Major Ingram walk free. (In real life, the jury were not so swayed; Charles and Diana Ingram and Tecwen Whittock were all found guilty.)

This is one of those productions where everything is just so. The ensemble cast switched neatly between roles; the set design was modern (recreating the bear pit of the Millionaire studio, itself meant to evoke a colosseum); the staging was fluid and surprisingly experimental; and director Daniel Evans extracted larger-than-life comedy performances that teetered on the right side of mugging. The courtroom framing also allowed for quick, shameless exposition dumps. Even better, the flashes of deeper meaning – a reference to the Iraq War’s truth-denying Comical Ali, or the Apprentice-driven presidency of Donald Trump, reality TV’s worst spin-off series – never felt forced.

Evans is artistic director at Chichester Festival Theatre, where this play had a short run last year; he and Graham have tightened and quickened it since then. Like Network at the National Theatre, it forces the audience to think about their own reaction to the play even as they’re watching it – just as the unlikely innovation of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? was to let the contestants see the questions before deciding to play, tormenting them with doubt. As Graham pointed out in an interview, we should always mistrust ourselves: the case is known as the “coughing major” scandal, when the major wasn’t even the one doing the coughing.

Quiz runs until 16 June. quiztheplay.com

Noël Coward Theatre, London W1

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge