Flight Jonathan Dove, Scottish Opera Review
***** (5 stars)
Till 24 February in Glasgow, 1 & 3 March Festival Theatre, Edinburgh
Jonathan Dove’s 20-year-old Flight is startlingly relevant today with its depiction of ‘ordinary’ human behaviour in the face of uncomfortable situations. The Refugee is in an airport, awaiting the arrival of his brother, who has all their papers: until then, he is trapped inside the airport building, and must hide from the Immigration Officer, who will arrest and deport him. He has no money and no food, and asks people passing by if they can help him – most turn aside and don’t want to know.
Bill and Tina are on their way to a second honeymoon, hoping to rekindle their first rapture in a relationship that time is turning stale and disappointing; the Steward and Stewardess bring their own brand of bright-faced, fixed-smile service to the departure lounge while desperately contriving moments alone in which to slake their lust; the Older Woman acts rather strangely- is she mad? No, she’s desperately hoping that her [younger] ‘fiancé’ will appear in Arrivals to resume their holiday romance. A diplomat and his heavily pregnant wife are en route for Minsk, where he is about to start a new, higher-grade posting: she is strangely reluctant to board their plane, and at the last moment refuses, so the diplomat leaves alone. A stream of other travellers arrives and departs around them.
Above them all, watching from on high, is the Controller. She loves the airport when it is empty, when there are no people in it: she watches the planes taking off and rising above all earthly concerns – how simple to fly, to rise up into the air, and leave everything behind…
An electrical storm traps the seven travellers in the airport and gradually they start to lose their bright shiny hopes, descending into bickering and doubt, while the Refugee tries to offer them hope with his ‘magic stone’. Each wants to believe it will change their life, but when the women travellers realise they have each got a stone, they turn on the Refugee, call him a traitor, and physically attack him. Meanwhile, the Steward and Bill are getting high up in the Controller’s eyrie, while she stalks the darkness with her torch, wishing that everyone would depart and leave her alone in her kingdom.
Morning comes, the storm dissipates, and the travellers are heartened by the arrival of an incoming flight – but the Older Woman’s lover is not on it. The women discover what the two men were up to; the diplomat returns to be with his wife, who goes into labour and gives birth; and the Refugee decides he will face the Immigration Officer when he next arrives. The other travellers ask Mr Immigration to have mercy, but he says “rules are rules, they cannot be fooled”. The refugee finally tells his story, and learns his brother’s terrible fate: the Immigration Officer takes pity on him and says “I can’t let you leave, of course, but I can turn a blind eye”. The other travellers fly off, chasing their golden dreams, and the Controller regains her calm assurance: peace is restored with their departure, and both she and the Refugee, who grips his stone tightly, realise that “this is my home”…
The music is fascinating, with different musical styles for each couple and brilliant aural descriptions of a plane taking off, the electric storm, and the trauma of the Refugee’s ‘escape’ flight, while Dove’s brilliant handling of ensembles and superb solo writing bears comparison with Mozart’s Figaro. There are so many memorable moments – the patter septet extolling the joy of holidays [“pina coladas and olives
and feta”]; Bill and the Steward’s celebratory “We’re so high”; Minskwoman’s realisation of her loss of identity and the initially wordless lament as everyone voices their misery and Minskwoman’s voice soars over this rising tide of grief; the Refugee’s haunting lullaby of welcome to the baby, and his terrifying account of his journey with his brother. Above all this, the Controller’s stratospheric singing soars as, calm and radiant, she observes everything going on in her kingdom.
The voices are all superb, and the characters both strong as individuals and excellent in ensemble. Jennifer France’s Controller soars effortlessly into the vocal stratosphere, while Refugee James Laing’s “other-worldly” counter-tenor symbolises the mystery of where he’s come from and his unsettled, rootless plight. Peter Auty’s Bill and Steward Jonathan McGovern’s gorgeous voices make the most of their ecstatic ‘love’ duet; Marie McLaughlin’s Other Woman, Sioned Gwen Davies’ Stewardess, Victoria Simmonds’ Minskwoman and Stephen Gadd’s Minskman are all equally outstanding. Dingle Yandell’s Immigration Officer has to wait till the end of Act Three to make a sound, but when he does it’s magnificent.
The production makes excellent use of lighting and back projection – clouds roll and boil, the storm rages, the interminable rain falls, the plane arrives with the promise of escape, and finally vapour trails cross the sky as the travellers depart. This is yet another triumph for Scottish Opera which was greeted with prolonged applause for cast, conductor and orchestra, production team, and composer: don’t miss it!
Flight Jonathan Dove, Scottish Opera Theatre Royal, Glasgow runs until 24 February in Glasgow, 1 & 3 March Festival Theatre, Edinburgh for tickets go to http://www.edtheatres.com/flight
Review by Mary Woodward