Bonesong/ Frankenstein!!

RORY ATTWOOD loves the theatre & JOE CONWAY loves the music.

Classical Halloween jo songi Joe Conway Opera rory attwood thom andrewes underground will gardner zoology

Zoological Museum, Friday 29th October.  £3.

Directed by Thom Andrewes

Musical Direction by Will Gardner


RA:  Cambridge theatre is repetitive and boring. The unsalted ADC sketch-porridge, the ‘intimate’ productions in the ‘intimate’ space of the Corpus Playroom. Where are the productions exploring new forms, new venues, new ideas? Well, one of them was in the Museum of Zoology on Friday.

The Museum of Zoology! If you’ve not visited it, you should: it’s full of skeletons, preserved Things and the stuffed corpses of animals. ‘What a great venue for a Halloween party,’ you might be thinking, and you’re right, but it’s an even better venue for a Halloween clubnight centring around a pair of murder- and madness-themed short operas. Operas!

Bonesong is a new piece written by Kate Whitley and Joe Snape, and its marriage with the venue perfect – as Johnny Langridge’s sinister ‘carrion-bird’ wooed Jo Songi with an impressive range of avian pet-names (‘my curlew!…my piper!’) we felt the glass eyes on our backs of stuffed birds peering from their cases, as if Langridge was playing only to the deceased part of the house.

The performances onstage and from the pit (or rough triangle of floor space bounded by skeletons) were impeccable, and the costumes wittily invoked the evening-dress of Phantom of the Opera (complete, in the carrion-bird’s case, with mask).

JC: Although I’m no way a fan of atonal music I’m happy to concede that there’s a flipside to its severely restricted emotional range. When it comes to expressing anxiety, fear, and pain, this kind of tuneless music really comes into its own. Horror films from Psycho onwards have used atonal scores to create chilling atmospheres and unbearable tension. And in the theatre, the scariest show I’ve ever seen is Alban Berg’s atonal opera Lulu.

Perhaps memories of Jack the Ripper horrifically murdering Lulu coloured my view of Bonesong, and maybe that’s why the latter seemed just a little tame. There’s an onstage murder in this new work too, when the male interloper kills the heroine’s brother. But despite some grisly electronics this was relatively undisturbing stuff. It’s also possible that ravishingly beautiful lyrical singing by Jo Songi, Josephine Stephenson and Johnny Langridge actually took away from the nightmare quality of the work itself.

RA:  Rarely did the music play with, subvert or set an edge to the sung dialogue, and its flourishes were by-and-large reserved for passages with no singing. The experience became more like watching with a sung play with an impressive soundtrack than an opera.  But, this is a minor criticism, and one that struck me principally by contrast with the evening’s second offering, Frankenstein!!.

Left to right: Will Gardner, several bones, Thom Andrewes

Photo: Miriam Sherwood

JC:  H K Gruber’s Frankenstein!! isn’t an atonal score at all, and from a plot point of view it has nothing to do with Mary Shelley’s novel, or the film with Boris Karloff.

RA: Its composer H.K. Gruber describes the piece as a ‘pandemonium’; it is a setting of children’s nursery rhymes incorporating a range of ‘toy’ instruments, but Thom Andrewes staged it as the story of a serial killer and torturer. Andrewes, as well as directing, also played the killer, in a performance that was hilarious, manically energetic, camp and occasionally genuinely frightening. He dived in and out of the audience, slithered up the back of the stage, and interspersed passages of singing with (tuneful) grumbles, ranting, swanny-whistling and one or two dryly spoken lines.  His silent supporting cast were toys as much as his range of nursery instruments; Andrewes’ killer tied them up and forced them into rubber animal masks (again relating the soon-to-be-corpses of the onstage characters to the corpses ranged around the walls). After bowing, Andrewes hopped across the stage to jerk their necks about in acknowledgement of our applause.  It was astonishing.

Bonesong insisted in a postmodern (albeit venue-appropriate) way on the reanimation of dead forms: it is itself a carrion-bird scavenging its plot from Phantom, while its language in its stiltedness recalls translation –perhaps the literal translation of the great Italian and German operas –and its imagery is as corpse-heavy as the Museum. It posed a question: whether our old art forms can say anything new, or whether they are dead forms – any new opera, play, novel or painting just a voodoo reanimation of a decaying corpus. Or worse, just ironic.

The question is particularly relevant to opera, an art that has become increasingly niche over the course of the last century, and artists working in all forms have been struggling with it during that time. Frankenstein!! didn’t answer it, but it did make a very strong case for opera’s re-elevation to the mainstream of the performing arts, by staging an opera that made most of the drama in Cambridge look desperately unoriginal and elderly.