Creator and Director: Calixto Bieito
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight
Creator and Director, Calixto Bieito, says that he has suffered from an anxiety disorder since childhood but didn’t know until 20 years ago, explaining the choice of subject matter in The String Quartet’s Guide to Sex and Anxiety. In creating the piece, he’s taken writing from a range of writers from Robert Burton (The Anatomy of Melancholy,1621) to more recent works from such writers as Stig Dagerman, Scott Stossel, Anne Sexton, Michel Houllebecq, Andrew Solomon and Søren Kierkegaa on the topic.
As we enter, a group of music stands huddle together in the centre of a largely empty stage harshly lit and casting angular shadows while stacks of chairs, 10 or 12 high, stand aloof and slightly menacing at the back of the stage. Enter Miltos Yerolemou. He picks his way to the front of the stage with great presence and speaks from The Anatomy of Melancholy. As he does so, the rest of the cast enter, moving obsessively, placing chairs and stands in place. And now we meet The Heath Quartet, which plays the first of five movements of Ligetti’s String Quartet No 2, a somewhat jarring piece that somehow enters one’s head and complements the spoken themes well: indeed, it feels as if the music is a fifth actor in the action. Later, as the stories move towards their individual resolutions the music becomes smoother as the quartet plays Beethoven’s String Quartet in F minor, an altogether smoother experience for the ears.
The musical pieces also serve to provide some punctuation between the monologues; each character explores their own history and issues – Yerolemou’s character’s desperation and yearning for death, Nick Harris’ character’s multiple phobias and medication needs, Mairead McKinley’s character coming to terms with a traumatic experience and her feelings towards sex with her partner, and Cathy Tyson’s character who lost a child but doesn’t want that to be the sole definition of her life. These testimonies are hard-hitting and difficult to listen to.
However, the whole doesn’t quite gel; there is limited interaction between the characters: they largely tread parallel tracks. As one makes a contribution, or music is playing, the others remain in their own world, moving independently around the stage, reacting to their own stories, so one feels this is a collection of disparate stories with minimal connections between them.
Nevertheless, the performances are individually powerful, harrowing and truthful. The music is well chosen and the musicians step outside of their comfort zone as they also demonstrate feelings of anxiety between pieces. One might feel that such a production might have its spiritual home within a smaller, more intimate studio space; however, the majesty of the Rep’s main house stage does serve to accentuate the isolation our characters feel.
This is a bold experiment that explores the feelings of desperation and isolation felt by sufferers of depression, whatever the cause, but that doesn’t quite fully pull it off.
Runs Until 19 May 2018 | Image: Robert Day