The double bill of Gillian Whitehead’s Hotspur with Schoenberg’s great Modernist Pierrot Lunaire is the first outing for innovative opera company formidAbility, which seeks to bring disabled and non-disabled professional artists together on (and off) the opera stage. Accessibility is at the heart of the project, building features which will make opera intelligible to disabled audiences into the very fabric of every performance, rather than bolting an interpreter onto the stage for a night or two (usual practice in most opera houses). This is a noble aim: and the outcome can benefit any audience, as was clear on their opening night, when formidAbility gave us the privilege of seeing the first ever opera production to include Signdance, a highly aestheticised form of sign language created for the theatre stage, at Grimeborn.
If this all sounds a bit experimental – it is. But, like most really useful scientific breakthroughs, it seems obvious in retrospect. Opera and dance have long been friends, and using a dancer to express a singer’s inner feelings, doppelgänger style, is not a new concept. The flowing physical lyricism of sign language, meanwhile, is a dance-like performance of meaning. formidAbility showed convincingly that Signdance can work brilliantly in opera: dancers Isolte Avila and David Bower added beauty and emotional resonance to Hotspur and Pierrot Lunaire respectively, in minimalist, intense settings directed and designed by Sara Brodie. However, like most early experiments, the formula is far from perfect yet.
Hotspur is a short series of five tiny monodramas depicting the inner monologue of Elizabeth Mortimer, wife of Henry “Hotspur” Percy, as he campaigns his way around 14th century Northumberland. Fleur Adcock’s poems are glorious: superb lines like “The field of battle is a ravening flood,” and “A heavy price he paid /For juggling with thrones” are interleaved with the repeating refrain, “There is no safety, there is no shelter,” as Hotspur’s lust for political warfare thrusts Elizabeth into ever greater danger at home. With poetry of this quality, the meaning of each passage extends far beyond the sum of its words, and Isolte Avila’s elegant, expressive Signdancing feels like a natural development of the libretto. Joanne Roughton-Arnold’s clear, forensic and cool soprano is spellbinding, as is her mix of wifely anxiety and queenly composure, confessed with appealing frankness. Whitehead’s score is limpidly clear, distinctive, and feels led by texture: we hear the sounds of nature, battle, and fear. It’s not an easy listen, but it’s certainly an evocative one. So, plenty to capture us on stage: but frustratingly, Whitehead is not immune to the perennial pitfalls of setting English to music, and so with great irony, given the production’s fundamental commitment to accessibility, Hotspur didn’t land as a plot. We needed surtitles, or at least Adcock’s poems printed in the programme, to get to the bottom of what Elizabeth was facing. The twirling dynamism of the signdancing could also be hard for deaf audience members to follow, with spectators on three sides of the open stage.
Pierrot Lunaire is rather more of an acquired taste, perhaps to be acquired by eating a hearty breakfast of nails, or bashing your ears with iced rocks daily. Joanne Roughton-Arnold proved to be a brilliant exponent of the sprechstimme style demanded by Schoenberg of his performer, using her spoken voice rhythmically to reach the myriad range of pitches and tones of this severely challenging piece. Conductor Scott Wilson navigated his way calmly through the seeming chaos, his ensemble slick and responsive at every bar. David Bower’s mischievous, devious and often desperate Pierrot was full of pathos, Bower’s lithe, dynamic performance recalling the rich tradition of Pierrot as a mime. But Giraud’s poems have a demented nastiness at their core which makes them difficult to stage convincingly, even with this much skill to hand: with surtitles provided, we were clearer on meaning, but meaning is often meaningless in this surreal, formless piece. Meanwhile, the flapping cuffs of Bower’s soft, dark Pierrot suit could obscure his signing for deaf spectators, and the decision to send him up onto a platform blocked by a huge pillar from a third of the audience for much of the latter part of the piece was a serious problem.
This experiment has only just started: formidAbility has already unearthed something of great promise for opera’s future. It has also created new problems of stagecraft to solve. But musical and visual quality are already there, along with a remarkable ensemble feel. Exciting.
Box office: 020 7503 1646 (To 1 September)
A formidAbility production in collaboration with Sign Dance Collective, the Rationale Method, Golden Chord Braille Music Transcription Service, Wycombe Arts Centre and 73, part of the continuing Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre