There is something delightfully enduring about the charm of a pair of stripy tights. Most famously, Alice wore them as she flew through the looking glass, and in doing so she certainly had her finger on the sartorial pulse, as striped stockings were all the rage during the Victorian era. Indeed, despite being the typecast as the preserve of a 1980s Camden Goth, stripy tights have a pedigree that withstands many a fickle fashion flirtation. They are pretty without being coy, vintage without being dated and a source of endless pleasure and amusement for the wearer.
How apt then, that they were to appear throughout Opera project’s latest production, The Magic Flute. Mozart’s opera, rendered in English and intersected with sections spoken instead of sung, has been made yet more accessible, especially for non-hardcore opera audiences. (Rereading this, I admit to recalling the girl behind me loudly confessing to having no idea what was going on, but maybe she was alone in this?) It is also, and perhaps most importantly, very funny.
I like to imagine that the Amanda Holden credited with translating the production is indeed to very same Amanda Holden who also has Britain’s Got Talent on her CV, and that the her entire acting and presenting career has actually all been in order to fund her passion – translating Mozart. Oh, for a time when talent show judges are German opera specialists! Still, despite my Amanda Holden daydream being unlikely to be true, the Amanda Holden who did translate this opera, deserves big credit. It is unusual for a production to elicit heartfelt laughs from the audience over a period of almost three hours, especially when the humour is of the lighthearted variety. If pantomimes were any good – and mostly they are not – they would hopefully be like this, where the slapstick and the sweetly comical were sustained by a much cleverer wit and the skills of the musicians.
Most of all, the production’s take on the comic fool, Papageno, was also far better than most similar characters. His annoyingness always stopped just short of being grating, perhaps because his clowning was offset with a degree of cuteness. In this respect, he was more of a Pan-like creature, or cross-bred with a harmless woodland imp, rather than related to, for instance, the gross Bottom who featured in the Old Vic’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream last spring.
The translated libretto, and in particular its use of pun, was reminiscent of Roger McGough’s recent take on Molière’s The Misanthrope. Both productions included, in different ways, the practiced manners of a courtly setting and the bathos which counteracted the formalities. They also both provided almost uncomplicated enjoyment – that simple attribute which is surprisingly lacking from so many productions.
Part of this enjoyment should be attributed to the space at the Tobacco Factory itself. When venues tell you they are undergoing a ‘transformation’, this often needs to be taken with a pinch of salt, but the Tobacco Factory, similarly to the Old Vic in recent years, really has emerged from its Tobacco chrysalis. The first time I went to see a play in the main theatre – as opposed to its sister The Brewery Theatre, just down the road – I perched on an old church pew and wore my winter coat inside. Which, to a degree, was fine as I felt half in character for the stripped back – and awesome – one- man-and-a violinist production of Moby Dick I saw that day. Today, the Tobacco Factory has heating – and I guess air-con for the summer too – but most of all, it has new seats, the result of a long campaign to raise money to buy them. I won’t claim to be an aficionado of theatre seats, although my derrière has known a fair few in its time and these ones *telegrams Exeunt excitedly* are decidedly above average on the theatre seat comfort barometer! Never dismiss the benefits of lumbar support during an opera, will be my new truth.
The other thing that is particularly special about the transformed Tobacco Factory, is its ability to stage productions – as Opera Project’s was – in the round. There is something about theatre in the round which feels instinctively more like theatre in a field, to use Chris Goode’s terms, than theatre in a forest. The cast walk on and off stage through the gaps in the audience, rather than evaporating into the wings, the forbidden land of the theatre space. The orchestra, cast and audience are all, pretty much, on exactly the same level and this makes the experience of opera – normally installed at arms-length on its Nelson’s Column of stage and industry – a very different one. The beauty of the voice is reunited with the individual it emanates from in the same way that the audience are that much closer to the cast of actors. This is a softer, less hierarchical approach to opera, one that democratises a good feeling – exactly like a pair of stripy tights.