Sunday 12 April 2015

Between Worlds – Barbican, London

[seen 11/04/15]

Let's be honest, as soon as you know this is the publicity image, you kind of know how it's going to pan out.

Between Worlds is an opera about 9/11.

I’ll just let that sink in for a minute.

(Yes. The Twin Towers 9/11, that’s right.)

Still sinking in?

Ok, plausibly it’s not an entirely stupid idea. I didn’t go to this world première in the hope that the thing would be bad. I went hoping that it would be brilliant and that my initial feeling of scepticism would be confounded. It wasn’t.

Opera’s quite a complex thing to write about, on the grounds that this is “Tansy Davies’s Opera”, but she only wrote the music. The libretto is by “poet” Nick Drake, whose biog suggests that his main job is hawking around a lot of unproduced scripts. If the action here is anything to go by, the reason that they are unproduced is that they are trite beyond measure (or, to be charitable, so cleverly post-dramatic and ironic that Britain just isn’t ready). It is directed by Deborah Warner, who apparently used to be good at directing in the nineties.

Between Worlds opens on a large, empty-ish stage, above which hang two further floors. On the ground-floor/stage a fair number of assorted office workers are seated. On the next floor up there is a table and a few chairs dotted about. On the highest floor is a bloke sat in a chair. I have to say, at this point it looks pretty hopeful. It’s an attractive, simple set. Stark and minimal but effective and strong. I’m faintly reminded of Benedict Andrews’s Caligula for ENO.

As the music starts... (the music is perfectly good throughout, fwiw. I’d happily have it on in the background while I make dinner, for example. Whether that should be possible with an opera about 9/11 might be a question worth its composer asking themselves at some point, but, without context, it is perfectly pretty music...) As the music starts, various “main characters” (they don’t have names, just age ranges and genders, or jobs – i.e. Younger woman, Older man, Janitor, etc.) leave their homes on an ordinary day. Mother (I presume) crossly says goodbye to her son, who won’t eat his breakfast; younger woman says goodbye to her girlfriend who wishes she could stay in bed longer. You’ve seen disaster movies before, or even episodes of Casualty, so you know how this doubtless-true-but-entirely-grating, emotionally manipulative set-up goes. IT’S POIGNANT BECAUSE THEY ARE ALL ABOUT TO DIE!!! flashes the big neon sign that someone has forgotten to nail to the back wall.

Incredibly stupidly, at the same time as the music starts, a backdrop of hundreds of sheets of A4 paper which looks faintly like the walls of the WTC is hauled up as a backdrop to be video-projected onto. Video-projected backdrops *still* don’t work all that well, especially when there’s light-spill on them. Warner and her team might have had a word with Katie Mitchell or Simon McBurney about how to do this better, because I’ve seen more competent video work than this in student musicals.

The next bit sees five or six people pootling about their work on the floor up from the stage. Their work is dull, because they work in an office. Oh, and one of them is new, so is freaked out by how high up they are. (the neon sign that isn’t there flashes several underlinings) The audience’s mind collectively drifts. And then after about 20 minutes a group of terrorists fly a plane into the first A4 paper backdrop. Or something. Then the video of the first tower smoking is played. Which strikes me as, well, artlessly blunt, without even the benefits of its own bluntness. It’s literally the worst 9/11 staging you’ve ever seen. Really bad. And I don’t think it’s even clever enough to be being bad on purpose.

The people in the tower are all freaked out and shit. And we get to reflect on the minutes between 08.46 when the first plane hit the twin towers and the whole world mourned the most dramatic air accident in living memory, and 09.03, when the second plane hit, and US foreign policy embarked down the long road to ISIS. But we only get to reflect on that because we have memories. The actual dramatic action remains almost aggressively underpowered, silly, tokenistic, etc.

So, yes, the basic thing here is that nothing at all happens. The music plops along slowly and prettily, the libretto spews the sorts of office-chat banalities, turning into disaster movie commonplaces, and the staging at no stage reflects terror, urgency, drama, pathos, or horror.

Watching, I suddenly realised why the ancient Greeks might have devoted so much of their theatrical energy to writing about a war which, if it took place at all, is thought to have predated Athenian drama by a good 750 years. And why it’s still a useful device for when we want to talk about horrific acts or terror or bloodshed today: because acts of war haven’t really changed all that much, or been initiated due to more or less complex reasons since Troy. But, crucially, it’s been an incredibly long time since anyone complained that someone was dishonouring the memory of the Trojan dead; that it was maybe a bit crass to make entertainment or art out of such misery. Etc.

Also: you can grouse all you like about the fact that – to paraphrase Stalin – 3,000 deaths are a tragedy, but they’re a walk in the fucking park compared to the millions upon millions of deaths that the Americans unleashed on the world as a result. And while, yes, you’d have to have no soul to not feel a shred of compassion for the people who died in the towers (and presumably the Pentagon, but no one ever mentions that. Ever), it’s a bit weird that 9/11 is now somehow a British tragedy (Tansy and Drake are both British), more than, say, the thousands who have died in Ukraine since the start of the civil war, or the thousands murdered by Isis, or the thousands killed in the ex-Yugoslavian civil wars. Yes, 9/11 had a sculptural spectacularity to it (and acknowledging precisely this got Stockhausen into terrible trouble at the time), but surely its longevity as An Event ultimately just carries on al Qaeda’s propaganda work, well past their difficult second album period, their decline, and almost disappearance/eclipse by Isis.

So: as a memorial, this opera, and even less this production of it, is spectacularly misjudged; as drama it is negligible; as entertainment it doesn’t even get out of the starting blocks; and as art, well, no one in their right mind is going to confuse this with art.

I’ve only flicked through the programme, but there also seems to be some really horribly misplaced hippy shit going on there too, which I don’t want my mind to be infected by. But I will say that calling the mysterious figure at the top of the “tower” a “shaman” – hailing, as that position does, from the native American tradition – has the consequence of reminding us that the United States is a country built on a near-genocide, and giving the (I’m sure unintended) impression that 9/11 is just what they had coming for a very long time.

In short: not a patch on this:

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