Too often the concept of ‘opera’ is entombed in a Wagnerian senses of grandiosity and antiquity, so there’s something commendable about any new piece which chooses to root itself so firmly in the twenty-first century.
The queue for visual artist David Shrigley’s Pass the Spoon confirms its broad appeal, trailing all the way out of Tramway, while the production’s credentials as something other than a traditional opera were reinforced upon entering the auditorium. The 13-piece orchestra was all dressed in chefs’ whites, massive foam vegetables were displayed stage right, while an oversized refrigerator occupied stage left; the programmes were peppered with Shrigley’s playful illustrations.
The plot is, to say the least, memorable and distinctive. Phillip Fork (Stewart Cairns) and June Spoon (Pauline Knowles) greet the audience as if hosting a Food Network cookery show. They explain that they are preparing a meal for their guest, Mr. Granules (Tobias Wilson), which will include vegetable soup, chops, and banana custard. The Banana (Martin McCormick) decides he does not want to be made into custard and convinces the Egg (Gavin Mitchell) to take on the role of waiter for the evening. Spoon and Fork visit the holy site of the Butcher (Peter Van Hulle) in order to purchase a heavenly chop – which they then go on to burn. As they attempt to placate their insatiable guest, Mr. Granules’ distorted and oversized foam suit foreshadows the grisly events to come.
The piece’s absurdity is tempered with something much darker in tone. Later scenes depict the ritualized slaughter of vegetables, as Phillip and June force a reluctant potato, carrot and turnip into the pot, and the drama reaches its peak when Mr. Granules eats June Spoon and she is faced with the ultimate dilemma: whether to go back up the way she came down, or exit via the back passage.
Despite the tentative ‘sort-of’ in the subtitle and the fact that the production does not feature an extensive amount of classical singing, this is very much an opera: the musicality of the language made this clear. The dialogue, delivered with great skill and comic timing by the performers, was tightly scored with the orchestration. The Red Note Ensemble played the score on a mixture of traditional wind and string instruments as well as a selection of kitchen utensils: balloons, knives, bubble wrap, whisks and chopping boards. The cast coped well with the unique demands of the piece (which features a whistling turd amongst its cast of characters), though some struggled when the score demanded a more classical vocal approach.
Nicholas Bone’s production works on a number of levels. It is often very silly indeed and yet it hangs together as a piece of post-modern theatre. It pokes fun at operatic convention with its playful imagery and yet it is not inaccessible to those who prefer their opera more traditional in tone and content. For all these reasons it is a production that shouldn’t be missed; if nothing else, you’re unlikely to have seen anything quite like it before.