“It’s difficult with the weight of the rifle” – David Jones, In Parenthesis.
It feels ungrateful to criticise a performance that is about a piece of history so important, powerful and personal. David Jones notes the “weight of the rifle” in his epic poem In Parenthesis which Welsh National Opera have adapted as part of 14-18 NOW, the UK’s art programme for the First World War centenary. This weight not only refers to the power of war and the pressures on the young men sent to their deaths. I feel it in the expectation of liking this performance and in congratulating it simply because of its bravery in dealing with this subject matter. In Parenthesis has clearly been created with good heart and meaning but for a performance about a situation in which people risked and lost their lives, it feels very safe and rarely is the ‘weight’ Jones mentions felt.
David Jones was known as an artist before the outbreak of the First World War. His paintings are overpowering, full of layers, contortions and life. It is disappointing, then, that the staging of this adaptation of his epic poem is lacking in the energy shown in his artwork. The haunting hallucinations that the synopsis describes in such detail are skimmed over in the staging, barely noticeable if you don’t read the subtitles projected above, even though it is in English. There is little sense of a journey and the epic nature of the poem doesn’t manage to translate to the stage.
The composition and direction oppose each other, as the former is fragmented, unusual, layered, much like Jones’ artwork, but the staging – or perhaps it is the book that creates this feel – does not match the modernity of the music and the lack of movement stilts the adventure in the score. Having the opera in English means the intonation does not match with the meaning of the words, arguably detracting from the poetic language. There are so many bodies on stage but their potential does not feel utilised. Dramatically the action we see is not ambitious and does not convey the sense of danger these men are in. Neither is there enough cohesion in the group action to suggest it is smart simplicity. For an institution that is so strict about unity, the marching is incredibly lack lustre, but it cannot be put down to the act of tiredness as this transgression and wearing down of the soldiers is not explicitly shown to us.
The camaraderie of the troops only truly comes through in a few moments. The pressures on the men is felt when protagonist Private John Ball (Andrew Bidlack) sits with Lieutenant Jenkins (George Humphreys), agreeing to put the outside world behind them for a moment and talk of “ordinary things”. They swap books and eat a last ration of cake, laughing together and forgetting the fear and responsibility around them. It reminds us that they are just regular young men, thrown into a desperately scary situation. The rest of the performance does not carry this forward and rarely are we allowed such a glimpse into their individual lives or feelings.
The women are, for the most part, unnecessary ghosts, and are used more as mannequins to display the incongruously extravagant costumes. Jones fought in the 1916 battle in Mametz Wood which is depicted in the piece but any emotion or sense of fear is overpowered by the bizarrely abstract twig costumes the women wear, creating an almost comically melodramatic death scene.
The orchestra lifts the piece, with delicate strings rushing into cacophonic thunder. The score lacks melody but instead has something fresh that roars with energy. Iain Bell’s composition knows when to crash and take centre stage, and when to pull back to allow the striking voices of the twenty four soldiers to roll around the theatre. Perhaps with a more abstract, ambitious staging this score could be used to convey the enormity of the situation and the intensity of the individual experience.
Outside the Wales Millennium Centre, after In Parenthesis, you walk into a mass of gently waving red lights. This installation by Squidsoup celebrates the 923 men from the Royal Welsh Fusiliers who died in Battle of the Somme and have no known grave. Some of these men would have served with Jones at the battle in Mametz Wood. On press night Field was opened with the Last Post and there was a shared respect as the gathered audience immediately fell silent. Field is an excellent example of using modern techniques to understand history. It does what In Parenthesis doesn’t quite achieve, in celebrating the soldiers both as individuals and as a unit. As the lights glow, waving at head height in the darkness, it really does feel as though you are walking among the men. They stand tall though they are fallen. Here, the weight of the rifle is truly felt.
In Parenthesis is on until 1st July 2016. Click here for tickets.