Review: Curlew River

LOUIS SHANKAR rates a pleasing fusion of East and West 4 stars.

Britten CUOS Curlew River trinity college chapel

Trinity College Chapel, 7th-8th February, £8/5

As the cast of CUOS fine production processed down the centre of Trinity’s chapel, their faces painted ghostly white, I knew something special was in store. Curlew River tells the story of the Madwoman, who is looking for her son when she comes to the Curlew River. As she traverses the river aboard a ferry, accompanying a group of pilgrims and travellers, the fate of her child gradually unravels.


Britten’s first church parable is staged as an adaptation of a Japanese Noh play, which makes it an impressive spectacle. With the exception of the Madwoman, the entire cast moved with rigidity and control and no variation in facial expression whatsoever. However, the fact that most of the actors were, first and foremost, singers did occasionally show through. There was a certain tentativeness in the movements of the chorus and a lack of coordination, which often felt clumsy.

The musicality was highly accomplished throughout, which was especially impressive due to the lack of a conductor. The cast easily filled the whole space with their voices and harmonies were precise and, occasionally, truly beautiful. James “Madwoman” Robinson especially stood out, partly thanks to his emotional and expressive freedom, which carried through into his vocals. His madness was, for the most part, entirely convincing – which I hope was purely down to his acting. The contrast between the restricted Eastern style and the free Western acting seemed too low, though, with an occasional lack of movement on the Madwoman’s part contrasted with an imprecision of the chorus.

An aspect that felt under-utilised was the ferry’s journey. Given that the opera’s title evokes water, the crossing of the river felt far too grounded. A few flourishes of fluidity – organised and precise, in keeping with the style – gave hope of something more, but this was left unrealised.

The setting seemed strangely apt: the juxtaposition of the expansive chapel with the minimalist, Japanese-inspired set. The Trinity altarpiece towered over the production, St Michael’s victory over the devil seeming like a fitting parallel for Britten’s church parable. And as the chorus stood still, they seemed to both emulate the towering columns that surrounded them and subtly reflect the marble floor that served as their stage.

The direction was, generally, thoughtful and strong; Gareth Mattey was clearly familiar with Noh theatre. Philip Barrett’s musical direction shone through, with careful interplay between the voices and instruments. The directors clearly worked with one another to achieve one of the most affecting aspects of the performance: quietness and stillness, which allowed contemplation on the large themes that this parable sought to convey.

Altogether a strong performance, especially vocally, Curlew River should be seen, if only for its adaptation of a rather alien style. Its short run is unfortunate, both because it is worthy of more time and, with a few more performances, the acting could achieve the accuracy that the vocals deserve.