Concert Theatre – Sonata Movements, is the newly formed AT Concert Theatre’s first formal presentation, co-produced and performed at Blue Elephant Theatre. Founded by pianist An-Ting Chang, the company aims to develop a new genre through the meshing of live classical music and theatre performance. AT Concert Theatre’s Artistic Director Jude Christian, provides accomplished and cohesive direction throughout an ambitious and well-balanced programme of short plays and it is a real pleasure to experience a high calibre of musical and dramatic performance in such an intimate venue.
Contrasting movements selected from sonatas by Schubert, Chopin, Prokofiev and Beethoven are performed live by An-Ting Chang and spliced through performances to provide emotive and narrative enhancements to the plays. The pieces have been carefully selected to reflect the themes and pace of their accompanying texts- explorations of loneliness and isolation throughout the life cycle, from conception to old age. The piano and set are at first covered in sheets which are gradually peeled back to create a new setting for each performance, with every new scene acknowledging the debris left by the last. The various characters’ use of shared props reflects the metamorphosis of the stage and the lives of the characters that have inhabited it.
In the opening piece, Caryl Churchill’s Abortive, the first movement of Schubert’s Sonata D is played whilst the actors stand silently on either side of the piano, allowing the music to create a poignant emotional overture. This brings a quiet focus to the piece and allows Tiffany Wood in particular to silently convey the physical and psychological complexities of a character coming to terms with recent abortion. The music then deviates from its conventional form as an adapted development weaves through Churchill’s text, heightening the fluctuating emotions in the scene.
The piano is also used here as a physical barrier between the characters of husband and wife, providing an anchor around which the actors can perform. This proximity means the piano embodies a character that changes within each piece, although this feels like a somewhat labored concept.
Other People’s Gardens successfully married the text and the music, as the opening melody is repeated with its accompanying monologue at the commencement of each lonely day in the elderly Sylvia’s isolated life. When Sylvia is interupted by an intruder in her garden, the music leads us on her emotional journey from her initial anger at the discovery of the schoolboy William, to her acceptance of his gesture of friendship in the paper aeroplanes that he throws into her garden. The piano dances with the schoolboy’s energy and highlights the distance between Sylvia’s solitary indoor world and the vivacious spirit who hopes to break through her loneliness.
Despite the ability to add drama and emotional intensity to these scenes, there are distinct challenges in the juxtaposition of live piano music with the spoken word that question whether one can truly absorb each element when performed simaltaneously. In T S Eliot’s Portrait of a Lady the musicality of the poetry clashes with the Prokofiev Sonata and prevents the audience from having the space to digest Eliot’s imagery, resulting in a frustrating aural conflict. The inherent technical challenge of this juxtaposition lacks focus on the actor’s own voice, encumbered at times, by the music. This dialogue is so beautifully executed throughout the evening that when such instances occur, they are particularly visible.
The final piece, Chekov’s Swansong, begins in darkness and without music allows the audience to relish Jonathan Newth’s touching comic performance as the actor reflecting on his life and theatrical career. The last movements from a selection of Beethoven’s Sonatas gel thematically with the reflective quality of the piece, leading us through Svetlovidov’s life as an actor and provide a dramatic backdrop to the extracts from Shakespeare that he delivers with the aid of his prompter. With so much ground covered in this short play, the introduction of the piano as another character feels unnecessary and as with other areas of the production I wondered whether moulding the music around, instead of over the words would allow both voices to sing freely whilst remaining connected to each other.
Sonata Movements is a thoughtfully crafted and unique experimental production and it is immensely important that venues such as Blue Elephant encourage this type of cross genre work to create new experiences and engage new audiences. Although not entirely successful as a succinct performance in its current form, the production demonstrates an intelligent and innovative approach to performance that challenges and delights.