ALASTAIR MUIR
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At Wigmore Hall, I hear the classical version of “Heads, shoulders, knees and toes”

Membra Jesu Nostri is set in seven sections, each corresponding to a party of the body. Plus: Rigoletto at the London Coliseum.

How many pieces of music do you know that are devoted solely to feet? Sadly, given the human foot’s vital role in our everyday lives, the Western classical canon isn’t exactly bursting with odes to insteps and ankles. The playground song “Heads, shoulders, knees and toes” comes closest, though its sing-song rhythms have so far excluded it from the world’s concert halls.

Yet in 1680 the Danish-German composer Dieterich Buxtehude produced a set of cantatas, known as Membra Jesu Nostri, which has much in common with the ­well-known children’s ditty. Each of its seven parts is devoted to observation and celebration of a specified part of the body, from “Ad pedes” (“to the feet”) through to “Ad faciem”, or “to the face”. The body in question is Christ’s, and the Latin text for each section is extracted from a medieval hymn, with the words chosen for their exploration of a particular part of the body hanging on the cross.

As performed on 20 February by members of the renowned early music ensemble the Sixteen, the suite was absorbing and lyrical. Under the direction of Harry Christophers, the dissonances between individual vocal and instrumental lines were brought out skilfully and the mood varied according to the music, without the presentation ever feeling indulgent or over the top.

It is unclear what Buxtehude saw as the purpose of the work, each of whose carefully crafted odes contains both an instrumental sonata and an intricate choral work. He worked for decades as the organist at the Marienkirche in the northern German city of Lübeck and spent most of his time playing for church services, rather than composing or staging choral works. The Membra Jesu Nostri, it has been speculated, was perhaps rather composed for private religious gatherings or prayer meetings. Its solemn, melancholy strains would assist in focusing prayer on one particular aspect of Christ’s crucified body in turn.

Buxtehude played a part in the newly emerging Protestant sacred music, experimenting with the intersection between melody and liturgy and laying the groundwork for the coming, 25 years later, of perhaps the greatest Lutheran composer of all: Johann Sebastian Bach. In the poignant soprano lines of the climactic sixth cantata, “Ad cor” (“to the heart”), it is possible to hear a nascent quality that came to fruition in Bach’s great Easter compositions of the 1720s, the St Matthew and St John passions.

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In the production notes for his 1982 production of Rigoletto for English National Opera, Jonathan Miller described its setting as “gangland limbo”, a version of Little Italy in 1950s New York City, where the 16th-century Mantuan nobleman of Verdi’s original becomes the “Duke”, a Mafia boss with a chorus of hoodlums to assist him in his evil deeds. In a 1989 review of the opera’s televised broadcast, the New York Times described the decision to update the setting as “provocative”. Thirty-five years on, it may no longer have the power to shock audiences but it’s still splendid entertainment.

The moral dilemmas and class hierarchies of the story are made more comprehensible by the 20th-century setting, too. Rigoletto is no longer a court jester but the barman at the Duke’s hotel, where the boss’s favoured lieutenants enjoy baiting him and ­making his job harder by deliberately dropping peanuts everywhere. Is it any wonder he becomes consumed by a desire for revenge when they mistreat his daughter?

In this 13th revival (25-28 February), the original sets from Miller’s production were refreshed to give them a mid-century-modern, almost Hopper-esque feel. Slicked-back hair and sharp suits were everywhere, and the women’s tight 1950s evening gowns fit the period setting perfectly when one of them emerged, disarranged and distressed, from an offstage encounter with the Duke.

Joshua Guerrero gave a vocally secure performance as the Duke, including a raucous version of “La donna è mobile”, although he is somewhat lacking in the lethal blend of charisma and malice that Verdi’s score demands from the character. Nicholas Pallesen as Rigoletto acted rather better than he sang, but his duets with Sydney Mancasola’s Gilda were evocative and moving. The great thrill of this revival, though, came from Nicholas Folwell as Monterone. Resplendent in a Godfather-inspired coat with fur collar, Folwell packed into his short lines all the indignation and fury of an ageing father whose daughter has been seduced and discarded by the Duke. 

Caroline Crampton is head of podcasts at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 02 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The far right rises again

Marc Brenner
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Carey Mulligan is oddly unemotional in Dennis Kelly’s powerful new play, Girls & Boys

If you intend to see Girls & Boys, don’t read this review.

If you intend to see Girls & Boys, then you should do two things. First, come back to this review: it’s a production best seen with no preconceptions. Second: have a child.

Still here? Good, because there is no way to discuss this play without spoiling its big reveal. It opens with Carey Mulligan centre stage, in orange shirt and red trousers, against set designer Es Devlin’s boxy backdrop of purest cyan. It’s a palette favoured by Hollywood posters, because the contrast is so striking. (Van Gogh once used it on a still life of crabs.) Mulligan’s unnamed narrator tells us how she met her husband, who is only ever “he”. Her monologue starts off funny – “Paris? Call that a world city? It’s Leeds with wider streets” – and sexually frank, but it’s also cleverly disconcerting.

She met him in an Easyjet queue and “took an instant dislike to the man”. Why? Because he was obliviously buried in a book – or because of his interaction with two models, who tried to queuejump by feigning sexual interest to stand next to him? (“And he’s just like, well of course… but I get to sleep with one of you, right?”) One of the models snottily tells him that she would never sleep with a Normal like him, and he acknowledges the truth of this. Then he calls them “bitches” for playing with his feelings, makes a chivalrous speech about the transcendence of loving sex, and suggests that sleeping with them would be “necrophilia… wanking into a pretty dress”. The temptation is to cheer – he put those stuck-up cows in their place! – and I wondered if my disquiet was evidence I’ve gone full Millie Tant. (Beware men who think there are some women to whom it’s OK to be sexist.)

But no. The husband is indeed a wrong ‘un. Mulligan’s monologues are interspersed with role-plays against another pure-cyan set; a living room, with details – a sippy cup, a blanket – again picked out in orange. She chides her children, Leanne and Danny, talking to the empty air about their petty squabbles. And then, halfway through the 90-minute running time, comes the punch: “I know they’re not here by the way. My children… I know they’re dead.” My mind went instantly to a routine by Louis CK. “A woman saying yes to a date with a man is literally insane,” the comedian says. “Globally and historically, we’re the number one cause of injury and mayhem to women. If you’re a guy, imagine you could only date a half-bear-half-lion.”

The narrator’s story, of a relationship going sour, is achingly familiar. Her burgeoning career, and growing confidence; the failure of his business, and his consequent loss of status. She asks for a divorce. He tells her: “There will never come a time when you have my kids and I don’t.” One night, he sweet-talks his way past the babysitter and twists a knife into little Danny’s heart, guiding it in with his thumbnail, before stabbing Leanne eight times. (Mulligan marks each wound on her body.) He tries to kill himself.

My friends with kids tell me that giving birth rewired them, leaving them reluctant to watch any drama with children in peril. To me, Mulligan seemed oddly unemotional in recounting these horrors; but perhaps a parent’s imagination would supply all the horror required.

Is it a coincidence that this play had its premiere at the Royal Court, where artistic director Vicky Featherstone has led the theatre world’s response to a reckoning with sexual harassment? Her code of conduct outlines potentially abusive behaviour, from the obvious – “physical force or threat of force, for sexual action” – to the situational: “staring, meaningful glances”. Yet Dennis Kelly’s script, which depicts one poison drop of sexism blossoming into a manifestation of the most extreme masculine rage, shows how difficult such behaviour is to police. When should the narrator have seen the danger? How can women sort the good from the bad?

In an industry convulsed by a feminist reckoning, I was left wondering if a female playwright would have dared to write lines as starkly confrontational as the narrator’s conclusion: “We didn’t create society for men. We created it to stop men.”

Girls & Boys runs until 17 March.

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 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia