Hotspur/Pierrot Lunaire – Arcola, London

Music: Gillian Whitehead (Hotspur), Arnold Schoenberg (Pierrot Lunaire)

Libretto: Fleur Adcock (Hotspur), Albert Giraud (Pierrot Lunaire)

Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

At first glance, the two one-act pieces presented by formidAbility and Signdance Collective International, and performed as part of the Arcola’s 2019 Grimeborn opera season, do not have much in common with one another.

The first, Hotspur, relates the story of 14thCentury nobleman Sir Henry Percy, the “Harry Hotspur” whose rebellion against Henry IV was dramatised by Shakespeare. Fleur Adcock’s poetic libretto, set to music by Gillian Whitehead, reframes this turbulent period of English history by glimpsing it through Henry’s wife, Elizabeth Mortimer, forever sidelined while the men ride off into battle.

Soprano Joanne Roughton-Arnold cuts a stoic figure, forever having to portray an air of majesty. formidAbility’s production pairs her with dancer Isolte Avila, and the contrast could not be more pronounced: while Rooughton-Arnold is perpetually upright and staunch in her teal noblewoman’s dress, Avila is wild, feral, her dress all billowing black.

The impact is effective: we see a stark visual representation of the inner turmoil that Elizabeth’s social standing does not allow her to display to the outside world. Director Sara Brodie, who also choreographs this piece, helps conjure up a world in which the futility of medieval warfare, and the impact on the women – never knowing if the sewing they do while sitting at home should be for baby clothes or funeral outfits – is starkly laid out.

While the five scenes that comprise Hotspurspan several years, Whitehead’s music is consistent throughout. One may miss the variety in musical tones that comes with a larger opera with multiple characters, but that is the slightest of issues.

The companion piece, Pierrot Lunaire, is both a more accessible piece and a distancing one. Arnold Schoenberg’s melodrama is narrated in the Sprechstimmestyle, a mostly-spoken, part-sung form. The form uses the syllabic rhythms and line repetitions that we take for granted in operatic arias; when spoken, rather than sung, such patterns of speech have a heady, hypnotic quality to them befitting the fantasy elements of the story.

Said story, based on poems by Albert Giraud, deals with the classic commedia dell’arte figure of Pierrot the Clown, played here by actor and choreographer David Bower. Giraud’s text drips with symbolism and imagery, as the clown journeys in a moon-powered nightmare world.

While the Arcola provides English surtitles for the German delivered by Roughton-Arnold’s narrator, it is a perpetual struggle to keep one eye on them when Bower’s fluid, comedic, tragic choreography is so enticing to the eye. The effect plays into the dream-like mood of the piece, highlighting Bower’s skills as a mime, as a dancer and choreographer while a narrative interpretation of his moves remains in the corner of one’s eye.

Traversing both pieces is a small orchestra, conducted by Scott Wilson, who work hard to bring both challenging pieces of music to life. In both pieces, Anne Chauveau’s cello is to the fore, often as a counterpoint to Roughton-Arnold’s soprano. Hotspuris further enlivened by percussion work by Calie Hough, evoking the threat of militarism, while Pierrot Lunaire’s magical world benefits from Pasha Mansurov’s work on the flute and piccolo.

And that is at the heart of why these two, seemingly so different pieces, work so well together: both challenge what the forms of opera and dance can do together, and show that Grimeborn is one of the most exciting theatre festivals of the summer.

Continues until 1 September 2019 | Image: Contributed

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