It’s comforting to imagine Classical composers as rarified beings, their talent nurtured by king and church as they wrote in candlelit luxury. But the only luxury in this story of the first performance of Handel’s Messiah in tumultuous eighteenth century Dublin is the plushy, oak-echoed music itself. Nick Drake’s disjointed but fascinating text shows Handel going through all the traumas of any Fringe theatre director — insufficient funds, unruly chorus, wholly unsuitable lead — to a divine soundtrack of live orchestral and choral performance.
Handel’s Messiah is woven from some of the most joyous passages in any sacred music – “for we like sheep”, sing the chorus, prompting giggles then delighting the audiences further with a “have gone astray” that wanders over broken chords and up scales. And some of the most solemn too – “despise-ed, reject-ed” are drawn out with a three syllable relish that the most melodramatic teenage goth would be proud of.
This interleaved mirth and misery is straight from Handel’s own experience: and especially from his reluctant stay in Dublin, where the Messiah premiered as a charity benefit after the dismal failure of his opera in London. Playwright Nick Drake has tried to lighten the solemnity of Handel’s 40-odd days and nights in reputational wilderness with the unsubtle addition of Crazy Crow, tramp with a heart, and archetype older than Western notation. He’s the less godly kind of resurrectionist, trading in teeth and anatomy not souls, and carrying lighter bodies of wooden instruments to Handel’s musicians by day.
Sean Campion’s mixture of chirpy opportunism and wracked sorrow is stock stuff but it provides a welcome diversion from the eighteenth century Pygmalion unfolding above stairs. With only one Italian diva to fill the work’s solos, Handel must convince disgraced actress Susannah Cibber, who’s in a hell of her own after a sex scandal in London, to let her voice be trained from mannered to mournful.
David Horovitch’s performance as Handel relies on a multilingual variant of rhubarbing, and he gets knowing guffaws from a fond audience as he “Schiesse!” at each new obstacle. Kelly Price’s moving performance as his protegee Susannah is still more wonderful for its surprise. She’s got the near impossible task of progressing, on stage, from mediocre mannerist to a classical soloist with depths of feeling equal to Handel’s heart-wrenching oratorios. She manages it with aplomb, delivering a performance that’s plucked from previously unsuggested depths: or from her “fanny”, which Handel crudely suggests her deep breaths should be drawn from.
The other appearances of Handel’s compositions come from a brief, haunting burst of Water Music, and from a chorus that process on and off in pantomimed disorder. The acoustic of the Playhouse’s seasoned oak walls is wonderfully clear, and its intimacy so completely different to more familiar church settings that it’s a shame not to have more of it. It’s a harmony that easily outshines the ill-fitting parts of Nick Drake’s book, but the story of Handel and Susannah’s unlikely friendship is sweet enough to make this a pleasurable exercise in musical historiography.