Thursday, 21 November 2013

ENO Satyagraha - puppets with purpose

Why is the ENO Philip Glass Satyagraha in Sanskrit? Why are the intertitles in turgid Victorian prose? What's the point of an opera where words have no meaning? But that's exactly the point Philip Glass is making. Words, in themselves, have no meaning.  What really matters is communication. In his early life, Gandhi wrote in newspapers, endlessly churning out words that had no impact. Once he dropped verbiage for direct action, he changed the world. When he swapped his three-piece suit for a dhoti, he made a statement. Material things and the power structures that rest on them are meaningless. What matters is purity of spirit. The juggernaut of Empire was felled by humble peasants and non-violence.

Philip Glass's music is maddeningly repetitive but once you stop trying to make sense of it, it kicks in. Many cultures employ repetitive chant because it works. Self consciousness and self awareness contradict each other..Chant keeps the body occupied so the soul can run free. Freedom, though, is  a dangerous concept, which is why many resist it, preferring the certainity of social constructs. Loosen up, guys!   Read what I wrote here about Bianca Jagger being sharper than "clever" folk . As has been said by persons wiser than us, it's harder for a rich man to enter heaven. Glass's structure connects to the epic saga of the Mahabharata but you don't need to know that in detail. Millions have got the ancient story without mastering the literature. Perhaps it's best to approach Satyagraha in the same way. Listen past the language of text and music, not to it, and relax.

 Puppets abound throughout this brilliantly theatrical staging by Improbable, Phelim McDermot's innovative company. Puppets are representations, not reality : inaminate objects that don't exist until manipulated by others. The turgid intertitles are claptrap designed to confuse readers. Just like puppets, we should be able to see through them.  Arjuna and his foes from the Mahabarata loom like ghosts in the first act. Giant grotesques loom over Gandhi and his colleagues. But they're just paper. Later the puppeteers dispense with puppets altogether, walking across the stage with strips of transparent tape, gradually creating cats cradles. The sticky filaments could tie them down and choke them, but from the maze they create a vaguely humanoid monster that rises upwards. Once it's served its purpose a puppeteer crushes it, and it becomes, once again, a worthless mess. What a metaphor for the way we are manipulated by the media and by society!

At one point, the chorus sits stretched across the stage, singing hahahahahahaha. They're reading newspapers, expecting the "natives" to wipe their boots, As an image of power, it's very effective. But the joke is on the rich, not the poor. Gandhi showed that humble people don't need to play games. During his lifetime, he knew Tolstoy and Tagore. He inspired Martin Luther King, whom we see in the final act. Gandhi and King were assassinated. Perhaps they were threatening because they represented an alternative to traditional power structures.  As the actor playing King addresses the heavens, Gandhi (Alan Oke) sings a surprisingly beautiful series of songs.  We don't know what he's saying, but he conveys more complex meanings through abstract sound and nuance than words might articulate. Should we shoot Satyagraha down because we don't like its implications?

 Alan Oke has grown into the role over the years. Although there aren't great florid technical displays in this music, it isn't easy to sing. Miss one bar and it falls out of synch. The purity of Oke's voice is ideal for the part, and now, with experience, he imbues his singing with intuitive confidence and dignity. He might be too tall and too pink to be a facsimile of Gandhi, but he creates the idealized personality in the opera. An "athlete of the spirit", whatever that might mean. His avatars, Arjuna (Eddie Wade) and Krishna (Nicholas Masters) are very good, bringing individual character to the roles. Wade's cockinesss is particularly well thought through.

The ENO chorus are in excellent form, so well drilled by chorus master Philip White in Glass's strange cadences that they make the music seem oddly natural. Stuart Stratford conducted: an act of concentration above and beyond the call of duty. Miss one bar or repeat and the whole opera goes awry. To my surprise, I was humming the "tunes" all the way home. Clare Eggington sang Miss Schlesen, Janis Kelly Mrs Naidoo ,with Stephanie Marshall, Nicholas Folwell and Sarah Pring in other roles. I don't know if I could cope with Satyagraha audio-only but live it works, thanks tp  Phelim McDermot, Peter Relton and the Improbable troupe of multi taskers.  Perhaps Glass might have jazzed things up in waltz time, but Improbable and Alan Oke make Satyagraha worthwhile as theatre.

Plenty more on this site about Philip Glass who can be very good (In the Penal Colony) or not as the case might be (The Perfect American) 

photos : Alastair Muir, courtesy ENO

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