Review: The Medium
Ghosts, murder, and late-night seances: what more could you want?
An evening spent in a candle-lit college chapel doesn’t usually bring the kind of adrenaline that might be found elsewhere on a Friday night. But experiencing Girton College Music Society’s (GCMS) rendition of Menotti’s The Medium, with its ghosts and gunshots, trills and charming duets, its well-timed (and fight-or-flight inducing) cymbal crashes, I felt drawn in to a kind of underworld of the occult.
The production, telling the story of a phoney psychic’s uncanny encounter in one of her fake séances, uses its space brilliantly. Candlelight initially casts an inviting glow on a cosy domestic scene with a sofa and hat stand on one side, a curtain and table on the other – a homely familiarity that unravels with the intrusion of the occult. Behind the set is the orchestra, placed conspicuously in view such that the performance emerges out of a balanced dynamic between music and acting; the orchestra wasn’t simply a backdrop here.
But I particularly liked how the production didn’t confine itself to the front of the chapel. At the back, by the organ, was the space of the spectral, where apparitions lurked and spoke across the audience to the séances at the front. The effect was a collapse of sorts of the fourth wall, the audience becoming implicated as a transition zone between the familiar and the eerie. And so in scenes like the séance where the characters speak to the dead across the chapel, I saw everyone turning their heads back and forth. The audience was again here bound up in the action of the performance, forced into motion while the actors remained still – a great use of the intimacy of Girton’s chapel. Positioning Monica (Izzy Benson) at the back by the organ, genuinely terrifying in both her veiled, red-lit figure and her hypnotic notes, glanced back to the haunting organ music played by Gabriel Kennedy upon entering the chapel. It felt to me a chilling reminder of the chapel’s own history of noise, the organ’s own apparitions of past music played.
The way in which the actors and orchestra meshed together was particularly impressive. The music was able to do some of the communicative work that Toby (Olivia Kiely), his voice muted, could not. Beaten relentlessly by Baba/Madam Flora (Amy Bolster) in the second Act, Toby’s cries were betrayed by the icy string accompaniment, punctuated by the flashes of red lighting (Sophie Richardson). Then, brilliantly, the laughter of Monica was imitated by the cello (Isabella Chan) in a moment of saltalto, its scratchy modulations of pitch very convincingly standing in for the human. When Baba feels the hand of an apparition touch her shoulder, the aggressive piano figure (Adam Titcombe and Gabriel Kennedy) lurched me out of the séance’s lull.
I thought the synergy between the cast and orchestra was embodied well when Izzy Benson turns around to conduct the orchestra. This mirroring overall, I think, fit nicely with the presence of ghosts throughout the performance, the characters’ singing finding a kind of afterlife in the orchestra’s imitation. Daniel Sandell as Assistant Musical Director had clearly worked productively with the cast, while Emily Clare-Hunt as Musical Director was especially commendable, pulling the musicians back on tempo where it felt they were falling out of time.
What stood out to me was the versatility of Amy Bolster’s performance. Her lurches in character were dizzying: from the tame pleasantries of welcoming guests into the house, to cackling hysterically onstage, to ending the first Act with an enchanting duet with Monica, fluctuations in performance were handled with an acute sensitivity. Izzy Benson’s singing, too, was beautiful, modulating with ease from the disembodied voice of a ghost to one of raw emotion when discovering the body of Toby. Her charming dynamic with Amy Bolster was mirrored by the impressive blend of vocal timbres between the married couple (Ina Krüger, Gregory Burford).
The second Act, bringing together the orchestra in its entirety in the short final coda, placed the full weight of its musical and dramatic performance behind its ending. Sitting in the second row, I felt there was a particular charge when Toby fell down right beside me, fatally wounded by Baba after being mistaken for a ghost. This final gesture for me collapsed that distinction between the familiar and the eerie, between the spectral and the human, as the ghost that had lurked backstage throughout the performance finally finds a pained corporeality.
But even now, with the show wrapped up, the chapel returned to its original state, the production still has an afterlife of its own: talking to others gave me the sense that it left a distinct impression on them — an excursion into the occult that made for an uncanny Friday evening, and well worth the trek to Girton.
Feature image credits: Tungsten Tan