Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Yes? Maybe

An intriguing evening at the world premiere of Errollyn Wallen and Bonnie Greer's Yes. 'Intriguing' because in some ways it succeeds, in others it doesn't, and some of its strengths also handspring its weaknesses. It seemed a work in progress, needing some nips, tucks and the addressing of some continuity issues.

But at its heart it strikes a deep, true chord: when Wallen is let off the leash of very short scenes and has the leisure to unfurl her best music, moments of great beauty emerge from the distillation of uncomfortable contemporary truths. How and why do we create in a world that is "baking in its own shit"? Thus the artist character, trying to work out what lies behind the "dark, malevolent" quality of what he's just painted, faces the existential question of any creative here and now, and it's a knock-em-dead performance by that brilliant, all-giving, stage-creature baritone that is Omar Ebrahim. 

A reflective ensemble number accompanied by purling strings and pizzicato almost a la Bach or Mozart proved another highlight, evoking the classical underpinning of Wallen's eclectic contemporary idioms; and the recurring, developing chorus, ratcheting the tension, helps to bind together a tricky multi-protagonist structure. Wallen's music has - as it often does - empathy, riff-edged sophistication, high intelligence and, best of all, a big, strong heart. And much of the singing was spectacular.

The problems are that mosaic structure and the staging. The latter first: the Linbury is opened up and the black and white stage is in the centre with seats on both sides. The singers must address one side, then the other and whichever you're on, you tend to miss the words when performers' backs are turned. The brevity of the scenes and the inevitable awkwardness of moving quickly from one to the next means that the flow of drama and music is constantly interrupted, and punctuation by supposed news announcements - delivered in a tone that is unfortunately more Open University than Newsnight - do little to help. Just when you think it's getting off the ground, it stops again.

There's one format in which Yes would work brilliantlyIt is TV. On film you could project writing instead of the spoken announcements, create an unbroken musical web that slides easily from scene to scene without interruption and develop each character that much more; at the moment we can only see a tantalising glimmer of them. 

Greer's libretto may at times feel difficult - the words of John Stuart Mill don't lend themselves especially well to singing, and using terms like "relevance" and "diversity" risks missing the mark in the context of operatic drama rather than commentary from outside. But the threads and connections build: the phone call from Greer's mother, talking about stargazing, finds an echo in the final words from the white grandson of an East Ender. Greer's mother says, "Nobody does that but us", yet this child from another place, another culture and a family of another mindset proves that in fact...we're all the same. We are all the same: we are all human beings. Why is that always the hardest lesson for us to learn?

So, in short: Yes is maybe a success in the making, it has some wonderful moments, it is brilliantly sung, it could use a bit of rethinking and - perhaps appropriately for an opera based around a forthcoming TV show - it ought to be a film. Stand by for snide remarks from white males.