The lights are dim, and Grace Nyandoro is taking off her nail polish. She’s sung for us: a brief, operatic burst of beauty that fills this small pub theatre space. And now she’s done. Or is she? Le Gateau Chocolat’s directorial debut, co-written with Tommy Bradson, is a show that finds theatricality in a series of unconventially untheatrical moments – casually half-singing to a radio bop, waiting around, breaking off a song in frustrating mid-flow, relaxing, over and over breaking the tension of expectation that exists between a virtuoso performer and an audience. This is more performance art than cabaret, and it feels both fascinating and frustrating, like being ushered into a diva’s dressing room but then trying and failing to talk to her as she pays attention to an unending succession of gentleman callers.
There are four different sets of performers for Liminal, each with their own set of musical arrangements. Le Gateau Chocolat’s song selections for Nyandoro are omnivorous but rich; she sings both the repertoire traditionally allotted to Black opera singers, the warming mournfulness of Show Boat and Porgy and Bess – but also roles so often given to white singers, like the crystalline misery of Dido’s Lament. These are almost all songs of heaviness, weariness: “sometimes I feel like a motherless child”, she sings, in her lonely apartment, only the radio for company.
Perhaps this heaviness is designed to reflect the energy-sapped comedown after a performer gives an audience everything. Or perhaps it’s something more topical. Designer Isabella van Braeckel’s playfully postmodern set certainly feels very ‘now’, reimagining early ‘90s visual fizz with a squiggly carpet in bright hues, and a tangle of squares and screens filling one wall. A plummy voice on the radio acts as a kind of compere for the evening, announcing news stories with surreal glee, and referencing pandemic-era problems in jolly 1940s-style tones.
At one point, he references the book ‘Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race’, but this frequently-recommended 2017 work isn’t a panacea for prejudice, and it feels like an easier choice than more opera-specific concerns. There’s the issue of type-casting, for example, or the fact that however many cheap ticket schemes there are, opera is available but not always ‘accessible’ to all audiences – it’s something that musical education massively helps you appreciate, and that education is fast being phased out of state education.
Sometimes it feels a little perverse to have a space that’s so deliberately modern, cosy, and welcoming – and then to make a performance that does little to contextualise beauty that’s filling your ears. I found myself thinking of Taylor Mac’s History of Popular Music shows, which are pretty physically punishing length-wise but so generous in spirit, giving you all this rich historic and social context which turns obscure songs into earworms. Knowledge gives you a sense of ownership over what you’re hearing, a kind of familiarity which in turn gives you a sense of relaxation: these are my songs, my sounds. Although this piece was exploring ideas of healing and decompression, I only intermittently felt immersed in it – often, I was scrambling to try to understand what I was hearing.
But maybe this was the wrong approach. Once I worked in a shop where Classic FM was always playing, keeping me company on the rainy afternoons when no one came. Liminal is as much about radio as it is about opera, about the way that sounds can be company that soothes you even though you don’t understand them, that can simultaneously assuage and amplify loneliness. About the tension that lives in pauses, and the gap between the self we carefully make up in the mirror, and the self we really are. I didn’t always know what to make of it, but in a hectic return to in-person shows that’s all about see, process, analyse, opinion-form, it felt heartening to be in a space for quiet, if opaque, reflection.
Liminal is on at King’s Head Theatre until Saturday 23rd October 2021. More info and tickets here.