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<em>Collision</em>, Spectra Ensemble at the Arcola Theatre
19 Aug 2017

Collision: Spectra Ensemble at the Arcola Theatre

‘Asteroid flyby in October: A drill for the end of the world?’ So shouted a headline in USA Today earlier this month, as journalist Doyle Rice asked, ‘Are we ready for an asteroid impact?’ in his report that in October NASA will conduct a drill to see how well its planetary defence system would work if an actual asteroid were heading straight for Earth.

Collision, Spectra Ensemble at the Arcola Theatre

A review by Claire Seymour

Bethany Horak-Hallett, Alexander Gebhard, Henry George Page and Juliet Wallace in Collision.

 

The conspiracy theorists are ever vigilant for signs of impending apocalypse. Only a few days ago, a NASA tweet about a solar eclipse due to occur later this month triggered declarations from evangelical Christians that humanity will be wiped out by the event. Given that terrorist atrocities and nuclear stand-offs currently seem to be every-day fare, one might be forgiven for occasionally feeling as if the end of the world is indeed nigh.

These are dark days and such times are ripe for exploitation by both doomsday-sayers and artists. Jack Stanley’s new play, Catastrophists asks us to reflect upon how we would behave if the social order collapsed, alienation and conflict ensued, and we had to fight to survive. But German avant-gardist Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948) was posing the same question 90 years ago, in his ‘grotesque opera in 10 pictures’, Collision (Der Zusammenstoss).

Paradoxically, montage seems to have been the underlying principle uniting Schwitters’ fragmentary art. He engaged with every artistic current of his day: German Expressionism, Cubism, Dadaism, Surrealism, Constructivism and Bauhaus. His art work included dramatic large-scale assemblages, installations, sculptures, paintings, drawings and advertising designs, but today he is best known for his collages - of tram tickets, newspaper shreds, scraps of cloth, and other ‘remnants’ of everyday life.

Schwitters and his collaborator, the German-American artist and art historian Kate Trauman Steinitz, seem to have applied the same montage approach to the opera libretto upon which they embarked in April 1927.

Based on one of Schwitters’ own short stories, Collision was to be a sort of ‘multi-media’ opera - a blend of play, cabaret and opera which mixed words, music and rhythm in new ways. The ‘plot’ juxtaposed different social types, switching rapidly between place - an observatory, an airport, a broadcasting station - and character, and charted the responses of his bizarre medley of dramatis personae to the news that the end of the world was looming.

When astronomer Virmula espies a new ‘Green Globe’, the euphoria of his planetary discovery is tempered by the realisation that it is heading straight for the Potsdamerplatz in Berlin. The media spread word of the imminent apocalypse, but rather than fear and frenzy the news incites opportunism and exploitation. Virmula sees not catastrophe but fame and fortune on the horizon, while his lover, Alma, exults in the projected honour he will earn. The High Commissioner of Order, aptly named Masterly, dons his uniform and attempts to assert his authority - over the city and the comet - by organising the preparations for the final sunset. Big Business sees the chance to make a quick buck, as journalists and radio presenters use hyperbole to stoke hysteria and sell another newspaper or song. Led by the janitor, Rommel, the homeless rehearse for Revolution, while the rich, such as the concert singer Paulsen, are indifferent to the threat to their lives of luxury and leisure.

This ‘Science-Fiction Opera Libretto in Banalities’ won second prize (300 reichsmarks) in a competition in Vienna in August 1928, but the score remained uncompleted. The project fell victim to the fiscal crisis triggered by the Wall Street Crash and ultimately the Director of the Berliners Staatsoper, who had considered staging the work, declared it ‘too ultramodern and much too comic’. Ironically, the opera-that-never-was embodies both the context which informed it and the very question that it asks: after the collapse of the Dream and amid the ruins of the glorious roaring Twenties, how will the world survive?

In collaboration with director Cecilia Stinton and the other members of Spectra Ensemble, composer Lewis Coenen-Rowe has rescued Schwitters’ music-drama from oblivion by composing a new score which he describes as ‘heavily influenced by the music of Kurt Schwitters’ 1920s Germany, combining elements of contemporary art music, popular song, jazz and cabaret’. That’s a bit misleading, as Collision is not really a ‘cabaret opera’, and there’s not really any ‘popular song’; but, Coenen-Rowe has crafted strong vocal lines and evocative instrumental moods which capture the darkness and bitterness of so much of the music of the Weimar era, with its experimental intermingling of the ‘popular’ and the ‘classical’. And, the through-sung structure does have some aria and ensemble ‘moments’, including an intense paean to ‘Organisation’, mankind’s last hope in the face of the imminent cosmic crash.

Juliet Wallace (Masterly) and Bethany Hawk-Hallett (Taa).jpgJuliet Wallace (Masterly) and Bethany Horak-Hallett (Taa).

The score’s distortions - tremors, thunderings, twisting swoops and screeches - are an effective aural embodiment of a chaos in which panic is juxtaposed with partying. And, the music is adeptly played by the band of five musicians - pianist Erchao Gu, violinist Carlos Yeung, cellist Harvey Gibbons, saxophonist Claudia Baum and clarinettist Robert Winup - who are conducted efficiently by musical director Sean Morris.

In the small Studio 2 at the Arcola Theatre, however, the music overwhelms the singers, further exacerbating the uneven diction and the lack of directorial clarity. Schwitters’ story is both wry and sly, humorous and bitter; but, it’s also fragmented and Stinton - admittedly hampered by the limitations of space - hasn’t found a way to show how the parts of the collage ‘cohere’. Schwitters’ discontinuities convey the social upheaval of the time, but here the ‘gaps’ don’t reflect such confusion, they aggravate it. Even though the action was ‘up close’, much of the text was inaudible and apart from the fact that Barnaby Beer’s Virmula had spotted an earth-bound solar body, it was impossible to discern what was happening other than that, whatever events were unfolding, they were taking place at fever pitch.

This was a pity, as the young cast are talented and committed, and one senses that the more detailed set, staging and choreography that would be possible in a larger venue would enable the singers to develop their characterisations beyond the grotesque.

Beer’s focused baritone communicates Virmula’s zeal while as his girlfriend, Alma, Olivia Sjöberg uses her soft-edged mezzo to convey her affection and adulation. Made to prance about in black hot-pants, suspenders and cut-away velvet waist-coast, Bethany Horak-Hallett has strong presence as Taa, Mastery’s girlfriend, infusing her mezzo with both sultriness and shine. Alexander Gebhard’s attractive lyric tenor emphasised Paulsen’s smug complacency. Juliet Wallace had all the high notes for Masterly’s stratosphere-surfing but unfortunately the volume was as unremittingly high as the register, and the charm of the unrelenting petulant posing and saucy posturing quickly wore off.

Schwitters’ artistic credo was the equality of all the elements in the collage - word, music, movement, sets, costume, lighting. But, with the acting space accommodating barely a couple of chairs and a broom, the music inevitably dominated, at the expense of dramatic coherence and interest, and theatrical breadth and depth. Moreover, the through-composed score actually negates Schwitters’ aim for parity of all the ‘available materials’ which are combined ‘for artistic purposes’. Perhaps balancing instrumental and sung episodes with spoken dialogue would have created a more dramatically engaging and communicative idiom?

At the close, when the collision - by this point, both feared and craved - fails to materialise, the bated breaths give way to the bathos of survival. ‘What if it’s not the end, what if it’s pretend?’ they have sung. Well, if it’s not the end of the world after all, then life will go on as usual, the contradictions of human nature unchanged.

Claire Seymour

Collision: a cabaret opera - by Kurt Schwitters and Lewis Coenen-Rowe

Spectra Ensemble

Barnaby Beer (Virmula, and astronomer/Jailbird), Olivia Sjöberg (Alma/Paperboy/Saleslady/School Principal), Henry George Page (Rommel, a janitor/Schmitt, a radio announcer), Juliet Wallace (Masterly, High Commissioner of Order), Bethany Horak-Hallett (Taa, a dancer, Masterly’s girlfriend), Alexander Gebhard (Paulsen, a concert singer); director - Cecilia Stinton, musical director - Sean Morris, designer - Holly Muir, lighting designer - John Pham.

Studio 2, Arcola Theatre, London; Friday 18th July 2017.

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