Friday, 5 July 2019

Mitchell - The Belfast Ensemble Bash (Belfast, 2019)

Conor Mitchell - The Belfast Ensemble Bash

The House of Usher

The C*** of Queen Catherine
Gilbert and Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance

The Belfast Ensemble, 2019

Conor Mitchell, Tom Brady, Alison Harding, Darren Franklin, Matthew Cavan, Gavin Peden, Rebecca Murphy, Marcella Walsh, Ciara Mackey, Tony Flynn, Abigail McGibbon, Marie Jones

The Lyric Theatre, Belfast - 28th June 2019, 30th June 2019

Founded in 2016 by Northern Irish composer Conor Mitchell, it's difficult to categorise exactly what it is that the Belfast Ensemble do. Music-theatre is the catch-all term that can include everything from opera, operetta, musicals and spoken drama with musical accompaniment, but even that is too restrictive for what Mitchell and The Belfast Ensemble do, as the balance of music and singing to theatrical drama can vary considerably from piece to piece. What remains a more consistent philosophy is that whether it's a new piece or a gala performance of The Pirates of Penzance, the works are performed in a popular medium with an eye on current affairs, keeping the music relevant as a response to the world we live in. And, just as importantly, it's a response from a Belfast perspective. This isn't a company that sits and works in isolation writing little pieces of abstract experimentation but wants to be in the middle of things and finding popular means to connect music to developments outside.

As a birthday celebration and in preparation for a visit to London, bringing some of their works to the Southbank Centre as part of the PRSF New Music Biennial, The Belfast Ensemble put on a weekend Triple Bill Bash! at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast, performing two of their extended music theatre pieces - The C*** of Queen Catherine and The House of Usher - along with a new piece Lunaria, to give a collective overview of what they are about and give some clues as to possible future directions. To round it off there was a one-off gala performance of The Pirates of Penzance, partly to keep the audience on their toes guessing, partly to consider a post-Brexit UK as a pirate nation (maybe, maybe not), but mainly to touch base with popular music and its primary purpose to entertain.

Adapted from the famous Edgar Allan Poe story, (with some debt to the equally famous Roger Corman movie) The House of Usher is primarily a study in the nature of fear and madness. That would seem a natural response to the world today, and even if it doesn't make any explicit reference to the fall of the Stormont Executive in Northern Ireland that was happening at the time work was written, it's easy enough to draw parallels should you wish to do so. Or again, maybe not. What is so great about the narration and performance however is that it leaves the work open to whatever is going on that is currently generating fear or concern.

The fear that afflicts Roderick and his sister Madeline comes from within, from a family curse, from an insular existence with no outside perspective, a solipsistic obsession, paranoia and fear of the world outside. There's also a terror of being locked up within oneself, buried in those obsessions, not understanding the world, unsure of one's own reactions, fearing them to being abnormal or judged abnormal.

The primary purpose of the Belfast Ensemble's theatrical approach of The House of Usher is to present the heightened tension of that fear-inducing obsessive insularity as effectively as possible, and the company use more than just traditional musical and theatre techniques, involving movement, rhythm, projections and movie clips that bring in not only clips from the 1960 Corman film, but also footage of 9/11. As an exercise in what can be done with theatre it's effective, but it's more than that. It might only use a voice-over narration and no singing, but it is operatic in terms of its musical dimension and incorporation of multidisciplinary elements, similar to what Philip Glass or Michael Nyman do in this genre - the propulsive downward spiral rhythms of Mitchell's score doing much to establish that connection - with a more experimental element that you can find in Michel Van der Aa or in Donnacha Dennehy's work with playwright Enda Walsh and the Dublin based Crash Ensemble.

The C*** of Queen Catherine tries out a different balance of its theatrical and music elements and, as far as I'm concerned, it isn't quite as successful. It's largely an actor's monologue with occasional musical accompaniment from a string quintet. The circumstances of the Spanish Queen's marriage to Henry VIII is related by Catherine of Aragon in an archaic poetic style and aligns itself with a vague commentary on current affairs in Northern Ireland in relation to the impact of Brexit on NI, “what happens when Europe divides in two, Tudor-style” according to the company, but clearly there are no such overt references and no allegorical element is alluded to in the production design.

Despite a great performance from Abigail McGibbon delivering a difficult 50 minute monologue, the piece is however far too long to sustain interest or connect to the elusive, fragmentary imagery of the words. Mitchell's score again evokes mood and drama well, and the theatrical elements provide another dimension to the work through projections and sound and lighting effects, but the piece is not successful in getting much across.

A new short piece, Lunaria consolidates the approach of the Ensemble, concentrating it really with an approach and delivery that thoroughly matches the subject. Brexit is again to the forefront. It's like it is trying to compress all the madness of the last couple of years down into 15 minutes with rapid fire soundbites. Three actors read overlapping headlines and extracts from speeches with video projections looping clips of the main protagonists (Boris Johnston, Arlene Foster, Theresa May) and victims like Lyra McKee that have dominated the headlines and concerns in Northern Ireland in recent times over Brexit and the backstop. Mitchell's music is again propulsive, urgent and rhythmic, based on repetition and escalation towards madness.

Lunaria concentrates the climate of fear of The House of Usher and its directness has the necessary impact and context that the Catherine of Aragon piece fails to achieve. In terms of presentation, the improvised set-up in the Lyric Theatre's studio, the musicians arranged in a circle around the three performers/newsreaders on tables with video clips projected behind certainly got the full impact of the work across, but you could imagine that the finished theatrical presentation will be further developed and no doubt only enhance the impact of the piece.

The weekend performances of The Belfast Ensemble Bash! Triple Bill were followed by a one-off gala performance of The Pirates of Penzance. Mitchell's justification for doing a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta - not that any is needed - is that he sees it as a good way of touching base again with the roots of popular music theatre. Well that's one reason, another is that he confesses that this was the first music theatre he performed in, but Mitchell also raises an interesting point in the introduction that a survey identified that most people's first experience of live music is in the theatre. And that's true for me too, the first musical performance I saw live was a school production of Man of La Mancha, and it did indeed made a singular unforgettable impression.

Whatever intentions and justifications you want to give - and you'd really be stretching it to impose any contemporary current affairs reading - The Pirates of Penzance was about really was just an excuse for the musicians and performers to enjoy themselves and let the audience enjoy it as well. On that level it certainly succeeded. It wasn't the slickest of Gilbert and Sullivan performances, half the cast were actors singing and half were singers acting, but that's a fair medium and characteristic of The Belfast Ensemble approach to mixing and matching. Of the singing performers Rebecca Murphy's Mabel was superb, but all the female roles were impressive. Actor/singer Matthew Cavan tried to bring a little bit of Captain Jack Sparrow-like fun to the rather slim comedy, but his natural flamboyance was limited by the standing and reading nature of the gala performance. Another notable bit of casting was celebrated Belfast playwright Marie Jones (Stones in their Pockets) taking to the stage herself as Chief of Police.

Musically the expanded Ensemble were delightful, the catchy melodies infectious, the performance sounding fresh and invigorated perfectly suited to the Lyric stage, Conor Mitchell conducting with verve and energy. It's easy to be sniffy about operetta and music theatre (particularly in this opera blog when it starts to become the staple of the local opera company, NI Opera), but being able to experiment, test the limits and extend what is considered to be lyric or dramatic theatre is right there in the ethos of the Belfast Ensemble, showing the range of possibilities open to a musical ensemble who refuse to be pigeon-holed into one category. And it's not just about being able to switch from avant-garde to Gilbert and Sullivan on the same bill, but the enthusiasm, musicianship and production values that they apply to them equally.

What the Belfast Ensemble are doing is great and very worthwhile and not just from a purely creative or music experimentation viewpoint. There's great potential in the music-theatre medium they have chosen to work within that is under-represented not just in Belfast, but anywhere in Europe. The choice of subjects that are responsive to the changing Northern Ireland situation within Europe and the wider world however is another important part of the Ensemble's ethos that ensures that that the works presented should always be it fresh, relevant, progressive and popular, not insular academic works for a small audience. With a huge talent base of artists and creatives in Northern Ireland, there is also plenty of capacity for further growth, expansion and collaboration. Exciting times indeed.

Links: The Belfast Ensemble