Grimeborn: Sane and Sound – Arcola Theatre, London

Music and Libretto: Matt Geer

Director: Katie Bunting

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

The Grimeborn Opera Festival at the Arcola Theatre often proves a revelatory showcase for new writers and musicians, but it’s hard to imagine a more personal composition than Matt Geer’s Sane and Sound, performing for only the second time. Based on Geer’s notebooks from a period of hospitalisation for Schizo-affective disorder, it is a show that in many ways defies assessment.

Purposefully created to include no straightforward narrative arc, no protagonist or deterministic structure, Sane and Sound immerses the audience in the experience of mental illness with its paranoid delusions, rapid changes of mood and the side effects of treatment. The control Geer exerts over this story is merely to marshal thoughts, feelings, beliefs and hallucinations into musical and dramatic form.

It’s not something you see in opera very often, so the usual shape and combination of operatic and choral sounds, acted scenes and dance make this an engaging mixed-media piece that dissolves different kinds of boundaries. The looseness of its form, the episodic nature of the experience will be more familiar to theatregoers where similar approaches have been in used in productions such as People, Places and Things, as well as the recent Rivers in the Sky which looked at storytelling and grief.

Even more unusually, Sane and Sound becomes less frenzied as the experience of the disorder unfolds, so what starts as an energetic jumble of scenes as the performers describe a compulsive exercise sessions involving 54-mile bike rides, periods of substance excess with coffee, smoking and drug-taking and the ego delusions of being a powerful political leader, the tone becomes increasingly dour as the listlessness that high doses of medication induce and suicidal thoughts resulting from depression overwhelm the collective consciousness of the performers.

It doesn’t all work, the acted scenes in a Post Office and Gun Shop are a little awkward without adding much to the overall effect and several sections reference drug names and associated symptoms may reflect the repetitious nature of the condition but also extend the run time of a show with close to 30 individual scenes. An interval also feels superfluous, interrupting the dramatic build of an experience that shouldn’t give the audience a chance to pause.

Musically, Geer is heavily influenced by his work in Cathedrals and there are notable choral and organ-like sections, as well as more traditional classical sounds. To reflect the changing, often conflicted states he experienced, Geer clashes and contrasts strings, brass and percussion so they cut across one another, or screech uncomfortably to create a disconcerting overall effect. The performers are current students or recent graduates; of the singers Anna Gregg, Chloe Todd and Sandeep Gurrapadi are particularly accomplished, while actors Flick Chilton and Chandler James add gravitas.

Every word of Sane and Sound has been drawn from Geer’s notebooks and to incorporate what was essentially a suicide letter as the show’s conclusion, read in the round and sung as a requiem, feels both remarkably brave and disconcertingly intrusive. You may want to impose the expected criteria and conventions of opera or theatre onto Sane and Sound but there’s no escaping the fact that it is the talented Geer’s very personal experience so vividly and so imposingly envisaged, that the future of the show will entirely depend on how often he can relive it.

Reviewed on 7 August 2019 | Image: Contributed

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