Writer: Kurt Schwitters
Music: Lewis Coenen Rowe
Director: Cecilia Stinton
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
Most artists and writers are their own worst critics so, if they decide not to share something with the world, it’s usually for good reason – the furore that followed the publication of Go Set a Watchman, the supposed sequel of To Kill a Mockingbird is a case in point, upsetting fans and tarnishing Harper Lee’s reputation.
Theatre company Spectra Ensemble is now doing the same for the ‘lost’ opera of Kurt Schwitters, and they think they’ve discovered a masterpiece.
Collision, based on Schwitters own novella, is set in 1920s Berlin where scientist Virmula spots a new planet that is on course to strike the earth the following day. As the news travels around the city, citizens are divided on the veracity of Virmula’s prediction, with some taking advantage of their last hours on earth to drink, make merry and make a profit.
It’s clear that Spectra Ensemble has yet to shake off their student sensibilities, and there’s a lack of polish and clarity that make Collision an effort to watch. Schwitters himself never returned to the opera when its inaugural performance was swallowed up in the Wall Street Crash, and, with its lack of characterisation and half-hearted gestures towards absurdism, there’s little to sustain this 90-minute show.
And Spectra Ensemble’s design – somewhere between Cabaret and German Expressionism – sits uneasily against Schwitters end-of-the-world storyline, adding nothing to the audience’s understanding, and more often than not working against it – as though Bob Fosse’s vision of 1920s Germany is the only possible option. Naturally, it’s just the female actors who are required to strut around in tiny shorts, suspender-patterned tights and bra-revealing outfits while making alluring and cheeky gestures while the men are all fully clothed scientists, caretakers and famous singers. The gender politics are clearly as old as the opera itself, but it feels like a pointless period setting that contributes nothing to the overall purpose.
Lewis Coenen Rowe’s original music is far and away the best part of the show, honouring the darkness of Schwitter’s text using heavy base sounds which become almost warped, while also using speed and layers of sound to create panic, fear and moments of carousing that the end of days suggests. A highlight is the melancholy piece toward the end as the populace face the oncoming danger where music and vocal arrangements work most in harmony to create a moment of real jeopardy.
Musicians Carlos Yeung on violin, Harvey Gibbons on cello, Robert Winup on clarinet, Claudia Baum on saxophone and Erchao Gu on piano, work well together and listening to the music alone would work better in concert. The actors have variable vocal qualities but have little to work with in the characters. Barnaby Beer’s astronomer Virmula and overly affectionate girlfriend Alma (Olivia Sjoberg) seem inexplicably delighted about the potential collision, and while Alexander Gebhard as concert singer Paulsen, and Juliet Wallace as the High Commissioner have the best voices, diction is a problem, and Wallace’s continual, and pointless, finger sucking and saucy looks quickly become tiresome.
Collision is, unfortunately, a libretto that Schwitters threw in a drawer and forgot all about. It’s a first draft of something that may have won a prize but wasn’t worth reworking when the writer hit upon better times, and Coenen Rowe’s new music aside, it probably should have stayed in the drawer. Spectra Ensemble’s production tries too hard to make a mark, but with little variation in the plot to sustain it, the audience is left hoping that planet might collide with Earth a lot sooner.
Runs until: 19 August | Image: Katie Edwards