Friday 30 January 2015

Unborn in America – The Vaults

[seen 30/01/15 – subject of show is abortion, if that wants/needs a trigger warning, consider yourself warned]

Be careful what you wish for. Yesterday I concluded my review of Mike Bartlett’s Bull worrying that I wasn’t going to see any new work that wasn’t concerned with the Crisis of Global Capitalism. I then posted said review and wandered off to the Vaults to catch my first show from that temporary, multi-space venue’s six-week festival of theatre and performance.

(It’s not a bad programme of mostly very young companies trying stuff out in a much less expensive way for them than Edinburgh. Although the new sound installation of wall-to-wall public school accents in the bar might be the best piece about the arts in contemporary Britain. Had it been deliberate.)

((Another aside, I was reminded yesterday of the phrase “a classless society”. I’m amused/depressed to see this has now been nailed down at “very nineties”.))

Anyway, Unborn in America is a new, experimental opera-based thing. Its blurb hopefully suggests that it is: “a fast feisty trash-punk new cabaret opera. Brecht/Weill on acid!” Leaving aside the exclaimation mark and the use of the worst-thing-in-journalism-ever-“like ___ on ___”-formula™ this sounds pretty bloody good on paper, right? The result is mixed.

UiA tells the story of Ziggy (Jessica Walker, the awesome soprano (surely it should now be soprana?) last seen by me in Mark Ravenhill’s equally awesome Coronation of Poppea), an aborted foetus who we meet in the bit of the afterlife set aside for aborted foetuses, working as a cabaret singer in a bar called the Petri Dish. (Ho ho?)

[Spoiler alert]

She then meets Jesus, asks to be born, is put on earth as a living, singing foetus, meets her mother, becomes president, and ends the world with a nuclear holocaust. Ends up back in the Petri Dish, having taken everyone else down with her.

[end spoilers]

I have a feeling that the phrase “a bit Charlie Hebdo” might become increasingly useful this year. It will mean: “maybe it is funny in French”. What’s weird about Unborn in America is mostly its location. It feel strange that two Englishmen (composer Luke Styles and director/librettist Peter Cant) have devoted so much time and energy to outraging literally no one with their spirited gross-out attack on American abortion policies. It’s like pointing out that America’s lack of healthcare, or total failure to subsidise the arts, is stupid. We all know. We all agree. This is like consensus-satire: straw-target immolation as preaching to the choir. Actually, it’s more like a double length episode of South Park, but done as contemporary opera (which is actually the thing we should be focussing on here, and will be soon, however...).

Did I miss a real shift in those months between September and December last year when I didn’t really see so much theatre? Both Unborn... and Islands seem to have sprung from no discernible precedent. I mean, obviously they have antecedents in both theatre (Hello, Jerry Springer – the Opera) and culture (anything from Viz to South Park via The Young Ones), but I totally didn’t see the big new thing for 2015 being grotesque cartoons.

Anyway, while I admired Islands, I found myself a lot more at sea with Unborn. It takes a while to establish its narrative. The first fifteen minutes or more (of an hour) are set-up, and then the story moves so fast that you can barely keep up, let alone invest (not, perhaps, that that’s the point). I should just admit that this sense of humour isn’t especially my favourite, and that I prefer my political satire a lot more dry, and then get on with describing what does actually happen rather than reviewing the thing as a failure to be what I’d have preferred it to be.

The music element is pretty special. Styles is clearly a gifted composer in the modern opera idiom. Admittedly this means it does a lot of stoppy-starty experimentation with instruments which militates against any song or aria ever gathering any sort of pace, which seems, here especially, a bit of a drawback in terms of Ziggy’s character’s drive and will to offend oratorically. Styles’s treatment of percussion – here an augmented standard rock drum kit, I think – struck me as especially original (and is perhaps where that desire for more through-lines and drive in the music comes from). The acoustics of the space perhaps take the edge off the overall sound, sludging the finest points of sharpness and clarity, but it’s impressive stuff nonetheless.

The staging is perhaps best seen as a series of necessary pragmatic compromises due to limited budget (it’s mostly a red curtain for the Petri Dish, opening to reveal with a painted, fairy-lighted Statue of Liberty when Ziggy is in the real world) and if someone chucked a tonne of money at the thing, then I’ve no doubt it could look awesome. The decision not to actually have foetus Ziggy look anything like a foetus, save for a forlorn looking umbilical cord hanging out of Walker’s t-shirt is probably the right one, but it sort of strips out the most obvious visual comedy and incongruity of the piece, and the libretto (for me) doesn’t quite get it all across by itself.

I’d be a shit not to record that this opening night was met by a largely rapturous response from a sell-out audience in what turns out to be a pretty big auditorium for avant garde chamber opera, so my gripes might best be taken with a pinch of salt. Not for everyone, definitely, but clearly made with great care and a ridiculous amount of talent.

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