Before the performance of Benjamin Britten’s Noye’s Fludde, or Noah’s Ark, the house lights go up and the conductor tells us that we’re going to be joining in a group song. I start sliding down my seat to hide, but there’s no escape. We are first row, first circle so I’d better mouth the words as a group of adult community singers are staring straight up at us in eager anticipation.
“Is this an evangelical prayer meeting or an opera?” Says my neighbour, who nudges me as the first verse, “Lord Jesus think on me” chimes out. But I’m up for this unexpected singsong. I’m not a believer, and not just because I’m Jewish, but I was almost persuaded to believe in Jesus once, at a concert of the London’s Gospel Community Choir. As they belted out in those deep soaring voices, it was as close to spiritual as it gets. Songs make you want to believe. But my friend next to me squirms in her seat and is having none of it. “ I’m not singing those words,” she hisses, “Noah happened way before Jesus. What’s he got to do with it?” Not a lot, as it happens. Still, singing in unison, whatever the content, does wonders for bringing communities together. And it brings us together, the audience and the performers onstage, as the fourth wall comes tumbling down.
Britten got this when he composed the opera in 1958, to be performed in a village hall as part of the Aldeburgh Festival. He wanted to his music to be accessible for all to sing. Lyndsey Turner’s colourful, energetic production embraces this in one gigantic outreach experiment, cramming the Stratford East Theatre full with people. In collaboration with the theatre, the performance is made up of 120 local school children, adult community choirs and the English National Opera creating an atmosphere that resembles somewhere between a place of worship and my kid’s primary school.
The ENO ensemble, conducted by Martin Fitzpatrick, is elevated on a raised platform hiding behind cardboard clouds, while truckloads of primary schoolchildren below furnish the ship, a grey cardboard cut out three-tiered construction – all part of Soutra Gilmour’s designs, made intentionally drab in tone, to highlight the changeover to Technicolor post flood.
The sets and costumes alongside Luke Hall’s video images create a homely, crafty kids workshop affair that resembles a local community centre production. But this just adds the charm of the evening, as do the cameo ballet performance for Raven and Dove, choreographed by Wayne McGregor, beautifully executed by two children who flit and float across the stage embodying birds.
Once Noah has his directives from God, armies of schoolchildren dressed in vivid animal costumes, faces covered by cut out masks (based on illustrations from Oliver Jeffers) pop up from the aisles, walking two by two, embodying their inner animal spirit with joy, all toothy smiles and arms waving, enjoying their moment onstage. It feels so refreshingly unpolished for a professional performance. Some of the children look bored, others full of glee and one boy covers up a yawn, just like the school play where not everyone is a performer but they’re up there anyway.
The ENO singers power the opera forward. Marcus Farsnworth as the energetically tirelessly optimistic Noah and Louise Callinan as vodka swilling, disbelieving wife blitz the stage with operatic song. While up on the rafters, the terrifyingly authoritative white haired, white linen clad all female God (Suzanne Bertish) booms out her orders to Noah with such powerful projection, he’s quaking in his wellies.
The performance ends after just over an hour with the audience invited to sing from their hymn sheets, but floods have ceased and the stage is full of rainbow joy, from multi-coloured raincoats to lights shining luminescent splotches on the Ark. By now, drawn into the sheer joy and exuberance of the performance and unwittingly seduced by Britten’s rousing score, even my grumpy friend sings out the words, “Lord Jesus think on me,” with a proper joyous smile.
Noye’s Fludde is on at Theatre Royal Stratford East till 13th July. More info here.