Reviews Brighton Published 10 May 2013

Britten: The Canticles

Theatre Royal Brighton ⋄ 9th May 2013

A dramatised recital.

Tom Wicker

The five pieces comprising this dramatised recital – debuting at this year’s Brighton Festival as part of Benjamin Britten’s centenary celebrations – span 30 years of the composer’s career but work seamlessly as a whole, charting a move from the personal to the public and back again in a jaggedly beautiful fashion. Tentative happiness spills into sacrifice, and bitterness leads to a quiet melancholy that is too wise for hope but finds meaning in acceptance.

Brighton-based director Neil Bartlett and lighting designer Paule Constable, who jointly conceived this project, have wisely resisted the temptation to theatricalise each piece up to the hilt. Each tells a story, but the power of the canticle – traditionally a hymn or verse set to music – is its interiority: an intimate communion of words, voice and score in which drama inheres in the nearness of agony and ecstasy.

Just as each canticle is shaped around a different verse or poem, Bartlett and Constable have let different directors (themselves included) find their own way into Britten’s music. Some of these stagings are more successful than others, but what unites them all is a stripped back aesthetic of uncovered lightbulbs and shabby raincoats – the numinous transposed to the everyday and adapted to the dimensions of an empty Theatre Royal stage.

The most effective of these interpretations embrace the collision of words and score in the canticles that throws up sparks to illuminate a rich and strange emotional landscape. In Canticle I: My Beloved is Mine (1947), Britten takes the religious rapture of verse written by seventeenth-century poet Francis Quarles and inspired by the Song of Solomon and turns it into a fragile love song full of doubt and uncertainty.

Britten originally composed this canticle to be sung by his lifelong partner and tenor Peter Pears. Here, Bartlett knits musical passages of nervy skittishness and sudden floods of feeling with a painfully restrained tableau of two male lovers sitting stiffly at breakfast together. The aching need in the music swells in the space between them, the final few notes played on a tablecloth by a lone composer.

In Bartlett’s assured hands, Bible, biography, score and staging dance around each other, briefly touching but never for too long. This haunting fluidity also underpins the best of the five pieces: Scott Graham’s wonderfully choreographed Canticle II: Abraham and Isaac (1952). Fittingly, this is also the most beautifully arranged, juxtaposing spine-tingling close harmonies with panicked scatterings of notes.

Tenor Ian Bostridge and countertenor Iestyn Davies harmonise as God (their faces turned away from us, as if ashamed) and separate to sing as Abraham and Isaac, as father prepares to sacrifice son. Next to them, dancer Chris Akrill – suited, dishevelled and bowed down by briefcase and umbrella – spins his son (Gavin Persand) in an agonising pirouette that finds haunting intimacy in the threat of death. The final image of Abraham leaving Isaac alone on the stage lingers after the lights go down.

Safety accompanied by a sense of loss and joy yoked to sadness: this production of the canticles thrives on the prickle of seemingly contradictory pairings. This is why the staging of the third canticle misfires, pinning Edith Sitwell’s World War Two-inspired ‘The Canticle of the Rose’ line-by-line to footage of bombs falling and Christ on the cross. It feels heavy and clunky, leaving the music no room to breathe.

This production works best when it doesn’t force us down a particular interpretative route or make us choose between sound and spectacle. And a major factor in its most powerful moments is the immensely talented Ian Bostridge, justifiably regarded as one of the foremost performers of Britten’s work today.

Davies and baritone Benedict Nelson (who joins for Canticle IV) sing beautifully, but it is the rake-thin Bostridge – our one constant across the five canticles – who sells every note and embodies every word. Whether anguished or cantankerous, his rich and complex performance brings us back to where we started: the essential drama of music.

Britten: The Canticles will be performed at Snape Maltings Concert Hall, Aldeburgh Music, on Saturday 11th May and at the Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House, from 10th – 12th July.


Tom Wicker

Tom is a freelance writer and editor, based in London. He has acted in the past, but the stage is undoubtedly better off without him on it. As well as regularly contributing to Exeunt and, he reviews for Time Out, has reviewed Broadway productions for The Telegraph. He has also written for The Guardian and the online world affairs magazine openDemocracy.

Britten: The Canticles Show Info

Directed by Neil Bartlett and Paule Constable with Scott Graham for Frantic Assembly

Cast includes Ian Bostridge, Iestyn Davies, Benedict Nelson




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