While Bristol Old Vic’s Theatre Royal is closed for refurbishment, a distinct strand of work has been emerging in its smaller spaces. There’s been Tristan Sturrock’s Mayday Mayday, Tim Crouch’s I, Malvolio, Sleepdogs’ Morpeth Carol, the Word of Mouth spoken word series the myriad diversities of Ferment and its various offspring.
If there’s a link between all these performances and their noticeably different styles, it’s an interest in playing around with ways of telling of stories which don’t necessarily involve – or aren’t necessarily limited to – a cast of actors, a director, sets, props or even a predetermined script. It’s not so much a case of multimedia as multi-tasking, and with its exploratory combination of music and narrative, Death’s Cabaret is very much part of this ongoing interrogation of conventional forms.
It begins with the Sacconi Quartet – previously seen at BOV deconstructing Beethoven to great effect as part of the Bristol Jam festival and now associate artists of the theatre – and singer, cellist and actor Matthew Sharp performing a short programme of music and songs by composers whose interests spanned the high-falutin’ culture of the salon and the decidedly less decorous world of late-night drinking haunts. Thus Hugo Wolf’s pizzicato-strewn Italian Serenade leads into Weill’s ‘September Song’, Ravel, Brel and more Ravel (“Fig for the bastard, illustrious Lady … “). It establishes a mood, a sort of genteel decadence which, although affectingly plangent in its own right, doesn’t quite fit with what follows after the interval.
In fact, the eponymous Death’s Cabaret – Martin Riley and Stephen Deazley’s music-and-spoken-word ‘concerto’ that occupies the second half – owes little to late Romantic metropolitan ennui. The story of a cellist who reacts to criticism of his precise but clinical playing by hiving off to Brittany to reconnect with his rustic ancestors, it plunges into a world of folkloric celebration and mythology. Forced to question his abilities as a top-drawer musician, Sharp’s character abandons London for the tiny Breton village where his grandfather was born and, at a heady rural get-together, falls for a girl whose less-than-respectable reputation owes as much to her temporary sojourn in Paris as her prolific,promiscuous, local affairs. An idyllic interlude segues into a nightmarish encounter with the ankou, the Breton collector of souls, whose demands both the cellist and the village girl attempt to forestall by playing and dancing their hearts out. Somewhat inevitably, perhaps, their dance of death doesn’t have the result that either of the lovers anticipated.
As both a ‘concerto’ and a piece of storytelling, the combination of the Sacconis’ deeply felt interpretation of the score and Sharp’s often judiciously deadpan recitative works impressively. The music and words sit well together – especially when the deliriously whirling, Breton-inspired score underpins Sharp’s account of his first meeting with the devilish Louella – but that balance may well be this production’s downfall, it being neither ‘musical’ nor ‘theatrical’ enough to achieve the crossover appeal that it evidently aspires to. Beautifully performed and intriguingly experimental, Death’s Cabaret may well just end up suffering from being neither one thing nor another.