Libretto and Director: Toria Banks
Music: Amble Skuse
Suspected, tested and persecuted, the experience of disability is far more varied and complex than society often allows. Using the testimony of real people and an official benefit assessment process, We Ask These Questions of Everybody explores anger, pressure and anxiety using a combination of music and animation in what is, essentially, an opera about The Department for Work and Pensions.
Hannah arrives for her benefit assessment where she is taken through a set of increasingly intrusive questions by interviewer Lyn whose judgement will determine not only whether Hannah is being truthful, but also the degree of support she is entitled to. As she answers the questions, a chorus of external voices join with Hannah to expand on their experiences.
Tori Banks and Amble Skuse’s verbatim opera is a damning indictment of the Government’s impersonal and unfriendly policy and process for assessing disability needs. We Ask These Questions of Everybody uses the questionnaire as a structure to journey through the sections of the form while anchoring the piece with excerpts from this interview between Hannah and Lyn, based on a genuine transcript.
Librettist and Director Banks has taken quotes and questions directly from her research and given them musical form, with repetition, lyrical layering and echo effects to create a distinctive soundscape that merges the words of the interviewees with the expressive pitch of opera. The approach is very matter of fact meaning that very ordinary conversational tics such as ‘yeah’ and ‘um’ are sung while Banks avoids the more floral vocal styles of opera so as not to distract from the content.
Skuse’s music is low key but combines the lighter insistence of clarinet (performed by Sonia Allori) with Steph West on the harp, all given an electronic tone by Skuse who expands the soundscape with other noises. At over 50-minutes the piece varies less that perhaps it could given the sometimes dry experience of plodding through a bureaucratic form, but Skuse creates moments of intensity within the music to reflect the lows and frustrations of the contributors.
Victoria Oruwari’s kindly Lyn has a patronising edge with a tendency to misrepresent facts during her summaries that makes her cool officialdom clear to the listener. Steph West’s increasingly exhausted Hannah never betrays her annoyance but the extensive questioning about diet, ability to move, dress, interact and personal hygiene are expanded by the chorus of disgruntled voices whose opinions appear as vocal and visual snippets on screen.
Across the 50-minutes the style becomes a little repetitive including the enjoyable scrunched paper animation peppered with emails, and WhatsApp messages mixed with doodles and handwritten comments. The tone is largely angry and disappointed, giving words to the chorus that are primarily negative expressions of mistreatment, misunderstanding and separation from society with too little of the positive impacts or opportunities. Yet, as a political piece of music, We Ask These Questions of Everybody is a worthy and interesting project.
Runs here until 28 February 2021