Monday, 4 July 2011

Well and truly 'Beached' - Lee Hall and Opera North

Today saw the fallout between Northern Playwright Lee Hall and Opera North.

Opera North have been working as part of a two year 'residency' with Bridlington community groups. Part of the project was an opera composed by Harvey Brough with a libretto written by Lee Hall, known for writing 'Billy Elliot' and 'Cooking with Elvis'. Today, with two weeks before the performance, involving children from local schools, Lee Hall wrote an article in the Guardian documenting his disgust that the opera; 'Beached', was being cancelled as the LEA's involved wanted to change homosexual references in the text.

From further investigation it seems the homosexual references include a character saying 'I'm queer' and 'I prefer a lad to a lass' (that's Geordie for boy and girl, for my Southern counterparts). Lee Hall was asked to change the references but refused, also making it clear that during these parts of the text the children, to whom the LEA are attached, are not on stage during this exchange between two male characters. Lee has also created a large media interest, obviously beginning with the Guardian but following on to be daytime talk show TV fodder and a facebook page that has recruited 100's of members by the hour.

There has been a lot said about the whole affair, Opera North are now onto their third statement in regards to the situation. They have claimed that it is not about "personality or personal opinion, it's about education policy over which Opera North have no control."

It seems however, they have slightly missed the point. Opera North are so scared of being deemed homophobic or discriminatory, they haven't realised the majority of the rising uproar is in their refusal to support Lee Hall in his decision, and defend the writers prerogative to write about issues as they see fit.

In a personal aside, why employ Lee Hall if this type of language or subject matter is going to cause issues? It seems Opera North employed Lee Hall as a 'Northern' man, not a man who discusses sexuality, life, death and everything inbetween. But as we know these definitions can only lead to trouble. Lee Hall's play Billy Elliot deals with a huge range of political, sexual and prejudice issues, with down-to-earth, 'real' dialogue - and that is what he does best. Billy Elliot is now used as a discussion point for school children across the country who, through creating their own productions are discussing the varied and important themes throughout. Surely this is the way forward? Surely this production of 'Beached' could have done the same - given children an education in a topic through the form of art and Drama, isn't this what we want?

On a final note, I went to see Benjamin Britten's 'Midsummer Night's Dream' at the ENO last month, a production oozing with sexual intrigue, exploration, with references to paedophilia in a cast that were as a young as 9 or 10. Not only is the opera a masterpiece, it's also continuously explored in relation to Britten's sexuality and how he uses it in his music. Could we get away with more then? Is it just a matter of timing? There seems to be obvious parallels in this work. Maybe in hundreds of years time Hall's original libretto will be performed to packed houses of people who find his sexuality 'charming'...........?

Saturday, 2 July 2011

Two Boys

Last night Trevor, Ben and I went to the ENO to see their production of 'Two Boys', a new commission from the ENO, written by Nico Muhly, a ridiculously talented Canadian 30 year old composer and libretto by Craig Lucas.

The story is not the stuff of Carmen, but is filled with Drama and intrigue from the beginning. We open to a detective looking through the case notes of a stabbing incident. The victim is not yet revealed but the suspect is 16 year old Brian (Nicky Spence). A boy who not only lives in this life but also a virtual world on the computer, filled with 'real people' and situations. Spending a lot of time on his computer chatting to 'mindful16', a girl called Rebecca who takes an interest in Brian and he becomes quickly besotted.

As far as proof goes, it's pretty watertight. CCTV footage shows Brian leading the boy into a desolate shopping centre, then leaving alone and screaming for help. It all seems lost for Brian. However, he is adamant he is not the only person involved - gradually we hear about Peter the Gardner, a Secret Agent and a young computer hacker. Obviously this falls on deaf ears, the detective Anne Strawson (Susan Bickley) seeing this as a young boys imaginary world to detract from the seriousness of the crime - that is until she finds the transcripts of conversations between Brian and all his seemingly not so imaginary friends. As the piece progresses we discover with the detective the real reason behind Brian's actions.......(dramatic pause)

The story is wonderful and incredibly dramatic. The structure of the piece overall teases the story from the stage piece by piece and leads to an incredibly interesting conclusion. Musically this is the same, the choral sections particularly are stunning, and give an impression of fluidity and complexity parallel to that happening in the story which you don't come to expect from opera ensembles.

If you have never been to the Opera, I'll be honest, having people singing does take some getting used to. Particularly in the more contemporary operas where people are as likely to be singing about buying a pint of milk as singing the huge dramatic arias synonymous with the artform. And as a total opera covert and lover, I must also admit I often find myself thinking, 'this would be a great play'.

But why wouldn't opera want to tackle modern issues? And can the expression of the story through song give us a new meaning or perspective on these issues? Theatre is meant to be a tool for change and awareness, as well as entertainment and event. The form of opera seems to be changing too. As the action happens around the music, there can be large sections where performers have to silently 'act' because they're not due back in for another 14 bars. But 'Two Boys' had less of that fill, and much more speed in delivery which fitted with the fast paced world of technological communications.

Overall, a wonderful evening at the theatre and another success for the ENO. Obviously well done to Val Reid as well who not only sang beautifully her portrayal of Anne's mother showed real interest and characterisation.

A great show. I would recommend to anyone and everyone.