Scottish Opera Presents Anthropocene, Theatre Royal, Glasgow:
**** 4 Stars
Well, what was that all about??
I had come to Glasgow expecting Scottish Opera’s usual excellence in what I would loosely term ‘modern opera’ and am sorry to say I was somewhat disappointed. The dangling, flayed seal carcass, the printed circuit board that snapped when dropped, and the bloodfest at the end [sniggerworthy rather than moving] neither engaged me nor taught me deep truths : but there were some brilliantly memorable images and moments – the ice block being slowly winched to the ground with the curled-up body clearly visible inside; the thawed-out Ice-girl, wired up and in a hospital bed, shrinking away from the greedily outstretched hands of the Professor and her husband; and her horror at the total absence of love or lovingkindness of the final brutal sacrifice.
This was an excellent exhibition of greed, vanity, self-interest, hypocrisy and all the less appealing human trait. It tried along the way to present us with a huge moral dilemma – save the planet, or save a few people’s lives? But the vehicle for this was, alas, a fable that beggared belief,…
Brief outline of story: a research ship, the King’s Anthropocene, is moored off the Greenland coast at the end of the Arctic summer. The Professor is supervising the collection of deep level ice samples, assisted by her husband Charles, another scientist. The expedition has been funded by wealthy entrepreneur Harry King: his daughter Daisy, an amateur photographer, accompanies him, and journalist Miles has been employed to report the expedition’s hoped-for success in revealing the origins of life. The captain of the ship Anthropocene and his engineer Vasco complete the crew. An ice storm is brewing, and the Captain and Vasco want to make for open water without delay: but Charles, Daisy and Miles are away collecting samples and the Professor hesitates, not wanting to abandon them. They arrive on board, she orders their departure, but too late – the ship is icebound.
Charles has discovered a body in the ice and brings it back to the ship. Daisy is convinced she sees its eyes move, and Vasco uses an axe to free the body: everyone is amazed when the young woman starts to breathe and move. Miles sabotages the ship’s communications system but is seen by Vasco, whom he later ‘accidentally’ murders; Harry King is obsessed with worry about the fate of his many schemes while he is trapped on board; the two scientists are convinced they will be as famous as Newton or Darwin; Daisy is desolate over Vasco’s death; and the Captain foresees doom and disaster everywhere, regarding the strange young woman, whom they call Ice, as an abomination who will bring disaster to them all. Ice reveals her story – she was sacrificed to release her tribe from the ice which had imprisoned them – and says that only blood will melt the ice in which they are all trapped…
White curtains framed the acting area: vaguely nautical and scientific stuff was moved around the deck of the ship: large letters spelling out the ship’s name were initially in pristine order but were whirled around by the cast as the storm wreaked its havoc. The costumes were mainly arctic parkas and trousers, which must have been hot to sing in: the final act’s simple white ‘pyjamas’ must have come as a relief. Ice was dressed in teeshirt and trousers once she’d escaped from her bed in the sick bay: she obviously didn’t feel the cold!
There was a lot of singing but few recognisably melodic lines, and some interesting combinations of sounds: but on this first hearing I found it hard really to take much notice of the music, which was an integral part of the action but didn’t have much memorable about it [unlike some of the lines in Walsh and MacRae’s the Bottle Imp]. There were many unlovely lines of speech bellowed above a complex orchestral score. I was very near the front of the stalls [wonder whether the balance would have been better had I been further back?] and didn’t find much that engaged my interest: in the end it became a constant succession of Noises – with the honourable exception of Ice’s lines which were always interesting and easily audible. Maybe this too was the intention – to represent the cacophony of contemporary life and the chaos and confusion of warring relationships, and contrast it with the simplicity of Ice’s existence, part of her tribe, knowing she was loved even in the moment of her death.
There was an outstanding performance – yet again – from Jennifer France [the Controller in Flight, and Zerbinetta in Ariadne Auf Naxos] whose seemingly effortless ability to sing ridiculously high and while making every word audible is staggeringly impressive. She gave a sensitive and deeply moving performance as the girl murdered to save her tribe from the ice who finds herself alive and breathing in a completely alien world.
Paul Whelan’s Captain, moving in and out of madness [channelling his inner Captain Ahab?] was only allowed to bellow; Marc le Brocq’s Harry King [not Terry Pratchett’s King of the Golden River, but a megalomaniac obsessed with his reputation and his share prices] sang melodically in the first act but didn’t do much later on; Anthony Gregory’s Vasco, the innocent victim, made some beautiful sounds but was bumped off before he could do much more. Benedict Nelson’s Miles cleverly portrayed the self-obsessed journalist willing to put everyone’s lives at risk then lying continually to save his skin; Jeni Bern’s Professor and her husband Charles [Stephen Gadd] were obsessed with claiming the glory for finding the girl in the ice with no notion of her as a sentient being; Sarah Champion’s Daisy tried to make her flirtatious scene with Vasco interesting and credible, but failed to convince me. All in all, the 21st century characters were all pretty unpleasant and unloveable, without redeeming features – I wasn’t involved in their lives and didn’t really care what happened to them. I was deeply concerned for Ice, involved in her plight and her feelings on coming back to life, and angry at the insensitivity with which she was treated.
One excellent thing about the production – it had my companion and me talking about it all the way home! It’s not an easy evening’s listening, and it doesn’t have the ebullient ‘in your face’ impact that Mark Anthony Turnage’s Greek had, but it’s a most interesting attempt to make some comments on contemporary society and attitudes. Tonight’s performance was the world premiere. The packed audience was very loud in its applause both for the hard-working cast, conductor and orchestra, the creative team, and composer Stuart MacRae and librettist Louise Walsh – but the honours of the evening undoubtedly belong to the amazing and sensitive performance of Jennifer France.
Scottish Opera Presents Anthropocene, Theatre Royal Glasgow Run Ended, Production will tour Edinburgh Kings Theatre from 31st Jan to 2nd February then Hackney Empire Theatre, London from 7th to 9th February. For Ticket info go to: https://www.capitaltheatres.com/whats-on/anthropocene
Review by Mary Woodward