Black, el Payaso / Black, the Clown – Arcola Theatre, London

Reviewer: Karl O’Doherty

Director: Paula Paz

Music: Pablo Sorozábal

Libretto: Francisco Serrano Anguita

Libretto adaptor: Ignacio García

Hidden among the classics of the genre in French, German and Italian there are a handful of operatic gems written in Spanish. We have some beautiful work in those languages, dealing with Spanish-set stories (Carmen, The Barber of Seville). But they don’t have the combined power that comes with a local language expressing local narratives and cultures. Modern audiences outside Spanish-speaking countries don’t get to hear much from this canon. The strength of this invigorating work, making its UK premier some 80 years after its 1942 debut in Spain, illustrates the shame of this.

This 90-minute wonder gives us a layered story about two clowns, one of which lucks into the position of King in their native country after impressing its princess at a concert. The political story flows alongside the romance, the battle between power and honesty, and themes of fate versus control. Sorozábal’s work, based on an earlier French novel, seeks to broadly explore questions of identity. The clowns rise to royalty before a popular uprising of their actual peers endangers their position. It makes a feature of the implausibility of anyone rising to power.

Under Paula Paz’s direction, we’re handed some help in navigating the story by the introduction of a Boy who sits above the action (irritatingly obscured by a girder for most of the show) dictating and directing the clowns and royals through his dolls in a model box. Who now is in control of what we’re witness to? The clowns, the royals, or the imaginative and ambitious owner of the hidden hand that oversees them? It may be laying it on a bit thick at time, removing an element of discovery and the interpretive journey to understanding, but it feels a good inclusion and a useful guide to the themes exposed.

It was written as Zarzuela, a style, mixing spoken and sung passages, home-grown in Spain. It’s unfair to say the result is quite like a modern musical, but it’s not a million miles away. The composer’s modern and widespread influences are clear. It takes in a sweep of genres from intriguing rhythmic jazz to soaring ballads rather than staying tied to its roots. Underscoring this creative use of music are the choices made in the accompaniment. Musical director Ricardo Gosalbo is at the piano alongside Elena Jáuregui on a violin. As well as their main instruments, they incorporate everything from percussion to a squeaky little horn into the mix. With two performers, regardless of the number of instruments they can handle, there are times when it feels a little sparse rather than efficient. This is especially felt in the more bombastic moments of the narrative.

A full sweep of fine performances from the cast showcases the interesting composition from Sorozábal, along with the libretto (from Francisco Serrano Anguita and adapted by Ignacio García) at its best. Opening with a muscular but shaky start from the two clowns Black (Michael Lafferty-Smith) and White (Giuseppe Pellingra) it finds its feet quickly. Lafferty-Smith as the focal point of the story meets his duty as the emotional heart of the piece with aplomb, reflecting Pellingra’s character’s opportunism and pragmatism perfectly. The two female leads, Raphaela Papadakis as the princess and Juliet Wallace as her friend Catalina, deliver (respectively) sweetly touching and flirtatiously mischievous performances, all while singing with beautiful clarity and expressiveness. The duet between the Princess and Black based on the piece’s core musical theme (the folk-based Song of the Steppes) is as delightful a duet you’re likely to experience.

Caitlin Abbot’s visuals in both set and costume design are highly effective. Broody, moody lighting from Lucía Sanchez highlights the straightforward colour palette used in both. But the costumes are where we really see some sparks. Maybe call it haute-carnaval (paying no attention to the mixed languages)? The fashion design here is wonderful, telling a story all on its own.

Captivating singing, kinetic and exciting performances and interesting ideas from around the creative table all combine here. That girder (part of the Arcola’s construction but could be navigated better) is annoying. And it’s a lot to get through without a short interval. But it’s a chance to see something unusual, stimulating, and vastly rewarding: a fantastic addition to this year’s Grimeborn.

Runs until 6 August then Cervantes Theatre 20-24 September 2022

The Reviews Hub Score

Unusual, stimulating, and vastly rewarding

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The Reviews Hub - London

The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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