We gather in a RADA basement to find two double rows of chairs facing one another across a long, thin central space; the layout faintly recalls a train carriage, the environment in which Belongings was first designed to be performed. The premiere of this opera was, in fact, on the Caledonian Sleeper (one of my favourite train journeys) on 24 July 2017, celebrating the opening of this year’s Tête à Tête Festival, as well as their link with soundfestival in Aberdeen, where Belongings will be performed again in November. The work is formed by a series of vignettes of train passengers and their belongings: whether they remembered them, or how they feel about them, shifting between the modern day, and the 20th century. Librettist and director Bill Bankes-Jones began by researching the evacuation of Jewish children on the Kindertransport in 1938 and 1939, many of whom travelled with very few personal possessions; but those possessions, he discovered, could tell moving stories and provoke intriguing questions, whether it might be a watch or a pair of binoculars.
One is heart-stoppingly simple, yet shocking: as a Kindertransport train pulled out of a station, someone thrust a wicker picnic hamper through the open train window. The children in the carriage received the basket, and opened it: inside the hamper lay a newborn baby. The baby was carried to safety; but the parents may never have known that. They just knew their baby had a better chance that the fate that awaited it – and them – in Germany.
Tenor Robert Lewis, in simple shirt and trousers, conjures a series of different characters across these time periods with admirable distinctness in his clear, expressive tenor, adapting his body language and phrasing to suggest a child or adult as required, imbued with anxious hope or furious exasperation. The latter comes to the fore in the first sketch, as Lewis enumerates today’s traveller’s litany, “Phone… Wallet… Keys… Passport…”, repeatedly and with increasing confidence, before suddenly throwing himself to the floor in despair as he wails, “Phone CHARGER! Phone CHARGER!”, while we hear the train pulling irrevocably away in the score. We’ve all done it. We have the young German boy finding the baby (and wondering if he can feed it the strudel his mother packed him off with); we have a more modern English father sweating with relief as he rescues his baby from the train where he accidentally left it. Another modern sketch, marvelling at a book, becomes a thrilling forensic analysis of the human process of publishing: as Lewis imagines how the paper and ink were produced, how the book was marketed and distributed, let alone those who wrote and illustrated it, and who packed, posted and delivered it, we realise that every book we physically handle is a tiny miracle of global interconnectedness, representing the combined personal efforts of hundreds, perhaps even thousands of people. “It’s a comforting thought that this book isn’t the work of one author, but of the entire world,” he concludes. My brain was sent spinning by this simple, beautiful and profoundly humane idea.
Lewis is accompanied by Zosia Jagodzinska (sporting period stationmaster’s uniform complete with cap and whistle) on the cello, and together they revel in Samuel Bordoli’s inviting score, which combines the evocative power of melody with contemporary dramatic writing, the cello replicating the urgent thunder of a train, or Lewis singing a gentle lullaby to the smuggled baby. Bordoli creates a series of separate musical chambers for the stories to inhabit: each one comes across distinctively, with the score sensitively supporting the narrative moment. Bankes-Jones’ libretto is not afraid of humour, sparingly implying poignancy and repeatedly evoking a sense of childlike wonder, such as the treasuring of the much-longed-for binoculars: Bordoli sets his words with unhesitating clarity.
The Kindertransport initialised with breathtaking speed: within 3 just weeks of Kristallnacht, the first 200 Jewish children were arriving in Britain, and nine months later, nearly 10,000 children had been saved (many, sadly to become the last surviving members of their families, as escape proved the only lifeline). If only the UK had been so quick, unhesitating, and generous, to save the children of Syria – or even those in the Calais Jungle.
Rating: 4 stars
Reviewed at RADA on Saturday 12 August 2017
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