with David Calder, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Zubin Varla, Giles Terera
Spirits: Giles Terera (Ariel), Thomas Aaron, Matthew Bailey, Barbara Gellhorn, Hazel Holder, Michael O’Connor, Sarah Quist
Directed by James MacDonald
Designed by Jeremy Herbert
The music was a cappella, apart from one beautiful instrument, originally invented by Glenn Branca – a harmonic guitar (a guitar, as you might guess, that only plays harmonics). You play it with your fingers, or with an e-bow. I was wondering vaguely who we might ask to make one, and two days later Jeremy Herbert produced it. Amazing.
The music is included on the CD The Tempest (2016) produced by the RSC
by Euripedes, in a version by Anne Carson
with Ben Wishaw, Bertie Carvel, Kevin Harvey
Chorus: Catherine May, Amiera Darwish, Kaisa Hammarlund, Aruhan Gallieva, Helen Hobson, Hazel Holder, Eugenia Georgieva, Elinor Lawless, Belinda Sykes, Melanie La Barrie
Directed by James MacDonald
Designed by Antony McDonald
An androgenous-looking man (who is also a god) persuades an aggressively heterosexual man to dress as a woman so that he can spy on a group of women, including his mother, who both terrify and fascinate him. A fabulously complex and seemingly modern piece of theatre, written 2500 years ago.
It’s a scene from Bakkhai, performed last year at the Almeida Theatre in a translation by Anne Carson, directed by James MacDonald. I wrote the music for the production, one of the most fascinating jobs I’ve ever done, an education. In its original form, the play was an extraordinary and sophisticated piece of music theatre, recognizably related to but interestingly different from current forms. Almost all the singing was done by the chorus (played by teenage boys) which had an enormous part. Most modern productions either dispense with the chorus, or convert it into a solo speaking part. But we decided to stick closely to the original intention; so we had a chorus of ten women, half of them primarily singers, half of them primarily actors. All the other (mostly speaking) parts were played by three men. This implies some bizarre doubling; for example, the actor playing Pentheus, the man who spies on women, also plays his mother Agave, who has just killed him and comes in with his head on a pole. Interesting!
The chorus had, all of them, to be brilliant singers, because they were faced with forty-odd minutes of elaborate, rhythmically asymmetrical, harmonically strange a cappella music, a mixture of chanting, singing, yodeling, ululating, noise-making and choral speaking. Considering that the play is about a religion – the cult of Dionysus – and the chorus are members of the cult, choral speaking seemed an obvious means of expression. But it can be dull, flattening out the natural contours of the voice. We approached it (James’s idea) by recording the text line by line, each line spoken by a different member of the chorus; the whole chorus learned the exact intonation of each line, and spoke the text in unison. The effect of this was that the speaking was at the same time characterful and, in a curious way, an expression of the group. I made two bridges between this and the singing, one a rhythmic, percussive speech, and the other a strange speech-song hybrid, in which half the chorus spoke the text and the other half sang it, all in unison - the singing like a aura around the speech, hardly noticeable, but altering the emotional atmosphere.
The difficulty of all this for a modern audience is the pacing; for much of the time the chorus is on stage alone, and because there is no dissent within the group the plot stands still. Their contributions (‘odes’) are like monologues. Their emotional journey through the play is hardly smooth - from exuberance through butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-the-mouth smugness, panic, misery, excitement, blood-lust, horror to pity. But only twice do they explicitly interact with the other characters: once with Dionysus (the androgenous-looking man/god), as adoring members of his cult, and once in the climactic scene, with Agave, when she appears having murdered Pentheus. Not realizing what she’s done, she sings exuberantly about her success in the hunt, while the chorus, who are in the know, react with a strange mixture of support and revulsion – a brilliant, disturbing scene.
To me the pacing is not a problem. In the scenes the action gallops forward, often making use of reportage; the language is plain, colloquial. In the odes we are invited to contemplate the current state of the action, and the philosophical implications of it; the language is heightened, poetic, and the texture of the piece fundamentally different. It’s a beautiful combination, and was surely the basis of the recitative-aria structure of early opera.
The compositional difficulty was this: In the context of a piece with a large proportion of speaking, incomprehensible odes were not on; so the sung text, complex in structure and carrying complex ideas, had to be audible. (The choral speaking was not a problem, of course.) And in order for the odes not to dominate the time-frame of the performance, the setting of the words had to be economical - no Hallelujah choruses with a few words lasting for five minutes. So a lot of the singing was homophonic; I allowed myself occasional polyphony, but only after the text had been presented homophonically. That was not the major problem. The major problem was that, although the chorus is surprisingly Apollonian, reasonable, unlike their sisterhood in the mountains, at least some of the singing needed to be really wild, extreme. That was hard to achieve. Wildness and comprehensibility – a tough combination!
Directed by Maria Aberg
Designed by Naomi Dawson
Movement Ayse Tashkiran
What does the music of hell sound like?
Britney Spears, said a friend of mine, ha ha. Well, actually, not far off. The only time I ever went skiing, at a ferociously nasty little resort in New York State, one of the most hellish places I’ve ever been, I walked out on to the nursery slopes to find Hit Me Baby playing over the speaker system…and decided to give up skiing for ever. (On the other hand, Toxic. Wonderful.)
What we’re looking for is a mixture of the seductive and the repulsive. Something that might promise more excitement than heaven - assuming you want the afterlife to be exciting - but is sleazy, brutal and frightening. Something that would kill you, if you weren’t already dead. Something toxic.
The Elizabethans, mostly God-fearing people, had a rather different idea of hell, of course, but we’re seeing it at least partly from a secular 21st viewpoint. The two most potent paradigms, in my mind, are the music of the great Tom Waits, and the sound of an MRI scan. I have only had a MRI scan once, and it was the most terrifying experience of my life, partly because of the extreme claustrophobia, and partly because of the bizarre other-worldly sound, an assault of electronic rhythm which was all the weirder for having, presumably, some relationship with the contents of my brain.
The lyrics of the hell-songs are constructed by anagrammatising the words of the Mass - a technique used in Black Masses. This kind of cut-up technique was also a speciality of William Burroughs, a writer who seemed to have a particular insight into hell, and, come to think of it, of David Bowie (which partially explains the elusiveness of the meaning of his songs).
And then there are the spells which project Faustus into this dark world. The lyrics come from the Cabbala, an amazingly complex and - to me, anyway -almost completely incomprehensible attempt by Jewish intellectuals at a theory of everything, which formed the basis of Elizabethan attempts at magic. The music of these spells is based on a four-note figure which is ambiguously major- and minor-key.
I first worked at the RSC when they still had a home at the Barbican. I wrote music for Richard II, mostly underscore, which was played in the most bizarre circumstances. The band was in a room somewhere in the building far from the stage, and the music was piped into the auditorium. The band, as far as I know, never met the acting company. They existed in their own little kingdom, where they drank shots from a little bar set up in the corner, and played Scrabble between cues. Someone had given them a dictionary of permissible Scrabble words, so the game was of a very sophisticated and abstract kind; when I looked at the board I didn’t recognise a single word. I vowed never again to take part in such a charade, and my next RSC job was exactly the opposite – a group of performers singing, a cappella, unamplified, the songs in The Tempest.
Recently I’ve been back with the RSC again, writing the music for Dr. Faustus at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon (a strange place, more heritage theme park than town). This time the band is very much in the room, although neither they nor the music director can see the action directly, and rely on video and audio monitoring. Consequently their connection to what’s happening on stage is both fragile and clumsy. The music is a mixture of set pieces sung by the performers, sometimes with the help of pre-recorded vocals, as in a West End musical, and long passages of instrumental underscore.
Theatre directors, excited by the possibilities of film, and have increasingly been seduced by underscore. Technology has come to their aid. Because it’s now possible to amplify the music and the voices, and to soften the music with reverb, underscore is more controllable. But theatrical underscore is different from film underscore, a much blunter instrument. A scene in a film has (usually) already been edited when the music is added, so the composer can finesse the relationship between the music and the action. Tiny details of timing and expression are crucial. The best film music seems minutely tied in with the action while at the same time, mysteriously, having an independent life. In theatre, on the other hand, each scene is always in flux, not only in rehearsal but performance, and details of pacing, timing and emphasis are constantly changing. Finessing the music is frustratingly difficult. A lot of rehearsal helps, of course, but not all directors are prepared to squander precious rehearsal time futzing around with music, and even then the inherent variability of theatre performance means that the relationship between music and action is liable to be approximate. In theatre, too, there’s usually much more dialogue. In a play like Dr. Faustus the language is complex and demanding, so the music has to shrink to accommodate it.
But, brooding on this in my Barrett home flat (owned, like much of Stratford, by the RSC), I began to wonder if I needed to change my approach, and stop thinking of theatre underscore as a poor relation of its film counterpart. Two possibilities: one is to work with a band of brilliant improvisers, give them a good sight of the stage and a skeleton score, and let them react to what they see and hear. The other is to be more demanding in my negotiations with the director, so that the music isn’t always scrambling to keep up with the action, but there is a relationship of interdependence, as in a dance piece. Considering that directors are tending nowadays to work with movement directors and choreographers, to make a more physical, integrated theatre, this seems sensible, and possible. The crucial question is then: how much freedom do the actors need?
Eye off the ball. The RSC Dr. Faustus transfers from Stratford to the Barbican, and the band are packed off to their room on Level A (the lowest level in Barbican Hell), and their disembodied music is piped on to the stage some distance away, a couple of levels up. When the musicians come on at the end of the play for their bow, having worked their socks off, you can feel the audience’s surprise. Oh, you mean there was someone in the building actually playing for the last couple of hours. In fact the musicians can only get to the stage in time because there happens to be no music during Faustus’ last soliloquy. The actors give a generous whoop of appreciation, conferring on the musicians a slightly more tangible presence in the event.
This is just how things were in the 1990s when I last worked with the RSC at the Barbican (see above), and when I vowed never ever ever again to work in this way. The experience sent me off in the direction of the livest possible music for theatre, often a cappella, often involving the actors. This seems to me to be the ideal situation, when all the energy, not just visually but aurally, is coming from the stage.
The transfer from The Swan Theatre, in Stratford, to the Barbican turns out to be tricky musically (though otherwise seems to go very smoothly). In The Swan, a thrust stage with two galleries, the musicians were in the upper gallery, not an ideal situation, but a situation in which most of their sound was heard acoustically, and the job of the (excellent) sound designer Claire Windsor was to enhance it when necessary, adding effects to soften it up when it was under dialogue, so that the (unamplified) spoken voice could sit comfortably – I was going to say on top of the music, but I think it’s more accurate to say within it, like spoken dialogue within a film score. The physical presence of the music was palpable, particularly, as one might expect, the percussion, particularly the bass drum, but more generally too. Very successful.
When you hit a bass drum the sound is extremely complex. Different events are happening in different parts of the drum. There’s the twack of the beater at the point of contact, followed by a wave which travels outwards, causing vibrations first in the skin, then in the body of the drum, then in the other skin. There’s sound inside the drum, and there’s different sound outside it. It all feels instantaneous, but the aftermath plays a large part in giving the sound its quality.
At The Swan, this was all going on in the room. Claire simply (well, ok, not entirely simply) helped it along. At the Barbican her job is different, and much more complicated. Without her, there’s nothing, just a bunch of musicians playing inaudibly in a room. She is completely responsible for what the audience hears, not only for capturing the complexity of the sounds of all the instruments (for example, to amplify an orchestral bass drum successfully you need several mikes), but for balancing those sounds, making them work coherently as music. All the sound from the band room has become digital, and then been turned back into a physical presence again, and it’s all in her remit. It’s like a sound engineer’s job at a music gig, but Claire is working round the complex entity of the play itself, its dialogue, its songs, its movement sequences.
At the dress rehearsal the music is profoundly disappointing. Not entirely surprising. Its lack of physical presence leaves it distanced from the spoken dialogue and singing. Some of the percussion instruments sound like cardboard boxes. (Actually I’ve always been very keen on cardboard boxes as percussion instruments, but here we’re using drums, on purpose.) The internal balance of the band is not right. Crucial sounds are scarcely audible. Subsidiary sounds are dominant. The balance of the band and the dialogue is not right. Some of the dialogue is obliterated (bad!). Sometimes, though, the music is so quiet as to become pointless. It has no relationship with the dialogue.
Gradually, over the next couple of days, with a certain amount of help from me, and Maria the director, Claire drags it into shape. I can’t say that I’m entirely happy with the result – I’d far rather the band was in the room – but, given the unsatisfactory circumstances, the sound is sophisticated, characterful, powerful when it needs to be, delicate when it needs to be. Not so easy to achieve.
Me in my workroom.
Right, I’d better do some work.
The Bad Angel and the Good Angel appear.
No, go on the internet. Take a look at the Dr. Faustus reviews. There’ll probably be some complimentary ones. They’ll make you feel good.
Don’t go near those reviews. They’ll just annoy you.
You can wallow in the complimentary ones and ignore the critical ones. Go on, treat yourself. Fuel your ego.
It’s dangerous. You won’t like the critical ones.
You’re absolutely right….. Oh, I seem to have googled Faustus reviews.
Well done. You won’t regret it.
Oh well, some intelligent discussion of the production..…important to know what the audience is thinking…..could be illuminating……
Don’t kid yourself. You don’t really want to read intelligent discussion, you want complements. But remember, the range of opinion these days is huge. There are bound to be some critical comments. They might even be hurtful. People can be really aggressive, particularly online.
Don’t worry. You’ll come out ahead. Generally speaking, people liked this show.
Right, here goes. Heck, I feel queasy. This one looks ok..… And this one’s not bad either…..Hmm, didn’t like the production, but liked the music…. Not bad.
Not so great actually, the music and the production should be indivisible.
Don’t worry, they love you, you’re on a roll.
This one looks dangerous…..Oh for god’s sake, that’s ridiculous, how can you criticise the production for not honouring the original Marlowe? The whole of the middle of the play is a disaster area – arcane discussions of Christian doctrine, unfunny comic scenes, episodes which might have seemed transgressive in 1600 but which now seem tame. I thought we managed to make something out of it.
You’re getting upset. And it’s not even as if the music has been in the firing line. Honestly, just stop. You’ll feel so much better.
Hang on, look at this one. Four stars! They loved it, loved the music. Completely got the point.
If you believe the complimentary ones, you’ve got to believe the critical ones too.
See how good you feel. Isn’t it a great feeling? Carry on.
Bloody hell, this one doesn’t even mention the music. Honestly, how can you write a whole review without mentioning the music?
You need another one. You’ll find something good. Keep looking.
The production was excellent; but it would have been so much better if the music hadn’t been so wrong. How shall I put this? I wouldn’t have written this music for this production (were I able to write music). There was one chant that was good, but it was only good because it was so like a song by The Stooges.
ME (immediately furious)
Oh, for God’s sake, what an absolute idiot. How could he possibly say that? The music fitted really well. Some drongo sets himself up as a critic. The arrogance of it. Just shows he doesn’t know the first thing about writing music for a play. And what a smartarse, mentioning The Stooges. Anyway, I’ve never heard that song, how could I have ripped it off? It’s so unfair!
It’s one person’s opinion. It doesn’t matter.
I know it’s one person’s opinion. And that person’s an idiot.
Ok so he’s an idiot. So it really doesn’t matter. But stop now. Stop torturing yourself.
Keep going. Find another complimentary one. You’ll feel better.
I’m going to write a comment.
Don’t. You’ll just aggravate the situation. Let it go.
You’re absolutely right…… Can’t I just tell him he’s a smartarse?
It is the middle of the night.
What an absolute twerp. He couldn’t even describe what was wrong with the music. That’s pathetic.
A few days later, middle of the night.
The Stooges, The Stooges, The Stooges….
A year later.
Hmm, actually that chant did sound rather like The Stooges. Maybe he had a point. I’m useless.
I give up.
I have recently started work on the music for Othello, directed by Ellen McDougall, at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, the small indoor theatre at the Globe. We have been playing with the idea of using Elizabethan instruments, matching the aesthetics of the space; and, as the play progresses, gradually beginning to transform their sound electronically. But the idea has turned out to be a non-starter, due to a house rule that there should be no amplified sound in the Wanamaker. This was mysterious, as the frisky Emma Rice, who took over the direction of the Globe earlier this year, has already created a technological revolution, introducing amplified sound (and lighting) into the main space.
Now the ambiguity of these decisions has been put into perspective by the revelation of a counter-revolutionary putsch (ok, so it’s not exactly Erdogan and the Gulenists, but….), which has resulted in Emma being shown the door by the management. A very odd decision, given that they appointed her only recently, and that she never made a secret of her intentions for the venue.
You could argue (and the management undoubtedly will) that the point of the Globe is to recreate the conditions of Elizabethan theatre, and to investigate its possibilities by working within its boundaries. It’s not uninteresting, this idea. What you get is a hybrid of immensely sophisticated play-writing and street theatre. The fact that complex design and lighting are not possible ensures that the crucial aspect of any production is the relationship between the performers and the audience, in fact, the relationship between the performers and a part of the audience, the part that is standing in the yard, around the stage. It is a theatre in which, gloriously, the people who pay the least money get the best experience (well, ok, unless it pours with rain).
The danger of the idea is that the theatre becomes a winsome piece of heritage, an attempt to recreate the past which doesn’t have much more meaning than a re-enactment of the Battle of Marston Moor. Isn’t it more interesting to take the conditions of Elizabethan theatre, and see how they interact with modern ideas and technology? Given the possibility of using electric lighting and amplified sound, would Shakespeare have been tempted? Yes, surely.
And then there are some practical considerations.
A few years ago I wrote the music for Lucy Bailey’s production of Macbeth in the main house. There was singing, and there were five bagpipe players. (Er, yes, subtle idea, I know.) The first, indoor, rehearsal of the band was, I was going to say electrifying, but that’s probably not the best word in this context. Let’s say, stonking. Loud, amazingly loud. The sound swirled and skirled around the room, producing strange harmonics and difference tones. I was jumping with excitement. When the music arrived in the theatre, it was curiously disappointing. It evaporated. It wasn’t loud enough. Which of course is odd, considering that a bagpipe is an outdoor instrument. (When we lived near Hampstead Heath, there was an ongoing row about a bagpipe player who used to practise there. Eventually he was banned, which was an offence to freedom of expression, but somehow the right decision - he was a terrible player.)
More recently I wrote the music for James Dacre’s production of King John. This production started its life in Middle Temple Church. Because of the lush acoustic, it was very difficult to hear the dialogue (not, we have to admit, entirely ideal in a Shakespeare play) but the music sounded wonderful – full of life, enveloping, involving. When the production reached the Globe main house, the dialogue unquestionably benefitted, but the music was, as in Macbeth, disappointing, underpowered. The sound didn’t cohere, because the acoustic is so dry. And, like the dialogue, it was occasionally obliterated by a passing helicopter. It’s a very unforgiving space. It would have taken a chorus of fifty and a band of ten to have made the effect I wanted.
In the Wanamaker, these practical considerations are less important – though the acoustic is surprisingly dry, considering the amount of wood involved. It’s more a question of whether or not to accept the Disneyland nature of the space, which looks like an Elizabethan theatre, but was built a few years ago; or whether to subvert it, and let modern life in.
THE DUCHESS OF MALFI
I’ve been working on the RSC production of Webster’s gruesome, violent The Duchess of Malfi. (You know when the play has ended because the entire cast is dead.) The set in our production is dominated by a giant carcass which seeps blood during the whole of the second half of the play; the actors end up wading in a crimson pool. At the press night a terrified looking member of the audience, who has been issued with a blanket for protection, spends most of the evening with it over his head. I decide he is simply reluctant to witness the violence, but he keeps it there during the curtain call, so he presumably must have wanted to escape from the entire event. Perhaps he is vegan.
During production meetings, there are endless discussions about the stage blood – its colour, its consistency, its rate of flow, its washability (oh those laundry bills!), its cost. A gloopy, syrupy consistency – like expensive balsamic vinegar - is the most convincing, but eventually this is sacrificed on the altar of flow, and for my money the consistency – more like cheap balsamic vinegar - is on the thin side. Still, the stage picture at the end of the play is gloriousl, glamorously gory.
Rehearsals for The Duchess of Malfi take place in Clapham. Every day I pass through Clapham Common tube station, where all the advertising sites but one are taken by a very powerful vegan advertising campaign. Cute photographs of animals are accompanied by slogans like: He trusts us – we slaughter him. As an omnivore it’s like being eaten alive by your conscience. The remaining site is taken, with gorgeous irony, by a local burger restaurant.
It’s hard to argue with veganism, except for what one might call junk food veganism – vegan burgers and wings, vegan pulled pork. Jackfruit torured to ressemble meat.
Surely vegan food doesn’t need to use meat models? Now Mildred’s, the London-based vegan chain, is selling a ‘bleeding’ burger. The ‘blood’ is made of beetroot juice. I bet they agonized over the consistency.
The central tenet of our production could be described as ‘the misuses of masculinity’. As the play is almost entirely populated by terrible men who treat good women with appalling brutality, this seems spot-on, although you could argue that there is more to it than that – issues of class, honour, jealousy, greed. We discuss the idea of ‘turbo-masculinity’; and the music emerges as a bastard love child of Georgian choral singing and heavy metal. Beauty and the Beats. Georgian choral singing is surely one of the most glorious examples of what a group of men is capable of doing together, perhaps the most glorious example, after Real Madrid on a good day. And heavy metal always amazes me – the dark lyrics, the baroque song structures, the virtuosity of the playing. We decide to work with a counter-tenor, for maximum contrast (turbo-feminine masculinity), and alight on Francis Gush, who sings such a brilliant version of Dowland’s Flow My Tears at his audition that we are all…. tearful.
This is all very well, but I’m not entirely sure how to make heavy metal music happen, and I’m certainly not sure how to make it happen in the context of a play. For a start, it seems absurd to write it down, and then there’s the question of how to make all those weird sounds, and then there’s the worrying question of how to do heavy metal underscore – music that keeps the spirit of heavy metal while being quiet enough to speak over without amplification. Daft idea! But help is at hand, in the form of the band (three guitarists and a percussionist – a proper band!), headed up by the marvelous Nick Lee. They demonstrate all kinds of effects and dirty sounds, help me to realise samples that I’ve found on my music software, improvise gloriously atmospheric underscore. The music director David Ridley introduces an old-school synthesizer called the Micro-Brute which seems to specialize in making the filthiest of analogue sounds. (David is, brilliantly, also a bit of an expert on Georgian singing.) We find ways to make music that is profoundly ugly while being profoundly quiet, although in the end a lot of the music is actually rather beautiful (particularly anything involving Francis) - a counterpoint to the ugliness of the men’s behaviour in the play.
It turns out that Joan Iyola who plays the Duchess has a spectacular and powerful singing voice. When she discovers that her children have been executed, she sings a heart-wrenching lullaby that is taken up, a cappella, by the male chorus. Good theatre! Finally she sings the same lullaby while presiding (from beyond the grave) over the chaotic blood-soaked final fight between her two terrible brothers.
On this production of Macbeth I am presented with the challenge of reconciling my usual style of composing – folk-influenced, melodic, usually vocal – with the decision to work with a glorious rag-bag of homemade instruments which demand a different approach, concentrating on sound and texture rather than melody and harmony.
Most music is melodic and harmonic (Monteverdi, Charlie Parker, the Pogues) and some is melodic but not harmonic (Indian ragas). But some (the singing of Tibetan monks) is about the exploration of a sound, and some (mid-period Ligeti, Xenakis) is about the exploration of texture. In fact twentieth century classical music showed an increasing interest in texture, and a decreasing interest in melody.
The rationale for using homemade instruments is the mis-en-scene of the production. The action takes place in the aftermath of a catastrophic civil war which has left the country in a state of chaos. The environment has been destroyed. What is left is, mostly, plastic.
Faced with Simon Allen’s amazing instruments, I need to rethink. There is no point in writing any music in advance, as it is impossible to know whether or not it will work. It is more a question of auditioning the instruments, finding out what they are capable of, and then trying to reconcile these possibilities with the needs of the play. We are working with two excellent players: Sarah Homer who plays clarinet and bass clarinet and is a wonderful, fearless improviser, and Letty Stott, who plays French horn and is less experienced but willing and full of ideas. The instruments are, essentially, lengths of tubing into which we can plug either a clarinet (or bass clarinet) mouthpiece or a French horn mouthpiece. So either player can play any instrument. A lot of gaffer tape gets used. The way the tubing responds to the different mouthpieces is hugely variable. One mouthpiece usually works better than the other. So we begin to settle on particular instruments for each player.
Most of the instruments play only one note and its harmonics (like a didgeridoo), so the melodic possibilities are limited. But the texture of the sounds is complex and interesting, and there is plenty of scope. One of the best instruments consists simply of a length of plastic drainpipe, bent round itself to form a kind of bass snake. We call it, simply, The Beast. It sounds like a cross between an electric toothbrush and a plumbing disorder, in a good way. We decide to associate these instruments with the witches, aiming to produce a kind of voodoo music, which seems appropriate since the stage is populated by mutilated dolls.
A few of the instruments, including the Homerphone (named after Sarah) have fingerholes, and are able to play several notes. These notes are fragile, unpredictable, difficult to control, but since the play is about a man gradually losing his mind, that seems a valuable quality. The Homerphone has three registers: several gentle bass clarinet-like low notes, some fragile and beautiful duduk-like mid-tones, and some totally unpredictable high squawking tones which we describe as the ‘damaged angel’. We decide to associate the instrument with Macbeth’s mental deterioration, so it makes its first main appearance in the murder of Duncan scene. Later we use it in the Lady Macbeth sleepwalking scene, which is an echo of the earlier scene.
Marc Tristchler the new Music Associate at the National Theatre, is nominally the music director of the piece but is actually far more than that. He is an excellent composer with a much more experimental approach than me. The project is perfectly suited to his sensibility. He is hugely helpful, and ends up composing some of the music, including an amazing anarchic trance track for the party in Act One, and a beautiful weird Miles Davis-like transition into the sleepwalking scene.
It is 7pm, half an hour before the start of a performance of Macbeth. Last night was press night. The actors are buoyant, pleased with the performance. The reviews haven’t yet come out. I am wandering around one of the exterior balconies of the theatre eating a sandwich, when I’m suddenly confronted with Rufus Norris, the director of the play and the building, who is standing, alone, almost hidden, in a brutalist concrete doorway, smoking a cigarette. We have a perky conversation – we’ve both enjoyed working together again after a long lay-off – during which he says, I expect a couple of the critics will have a go at me. And I say, Let them, we’ve done a good job.
I walk back into the foyer and bump into the director Richard Eyre. I have recently read an article about the difficulty of directing Macbeth in which his 1992 production with Alan Howard was presented as a shining counter-example. I mention this to him, and he says, Actually it was terrible. It is the reason that Macbeth hasn’t been done at the National for twenty-five years.
Next day, the reviews come out, and it’s carnage, one of the most savage sets of reviews I’ve ever seen. All the critics have a go at Rufus. It’s not possible to think, that’s just the opinion of one or two people – it is the opinion of everyone. The music gets off lightly, but that’s only because the critics have used up their vitriol laying into everything else.
Our universal surprise seems to confirm that if you’re involved in a project, you don’t know anything……
Much Ado About Nothing
Directed by Lucy Bailey
Designed by Joanna Parker
Much Ado About Nothing was originally set in Sicily at the end of an unspecified war. Our production is set in Northern Italy in 1945 as the Allied troops reclaim Italy, and features, not for the first time in my life, a protest song that has always fascinated me: Bella Ciao.
In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will be singing.
About the dark times.
Rice, staple food of a large part of the world’s population. A symbol of wealth, success, good health, fertility.
In Northern Italy, on the plains of the Po valley, the varieties are Carnaroli, Arborio, Vialone Nano - short-grain, starchy, ideal for risotto. The cultivation takes place between March and October: preparation of the land, planting, flooding, transplanting, weeding, harvesting. (The fields are flooded to protect the crops from extreme temperature changes between day and night.) In the late nineteenth century the weeding – monda - is mostly done by women. (You can use carp, but they have an annoying habit of eating the rice plants when they run out of weeds.) Conditions are grim: backs bent in a malarial swamp, long hours, brutal supervision, low pay. ‘If Dante had known the work of the mondine,’ says some politician or other, ‘he would have described it as a punishment in some circle of farming hell.’
The mondine have a song, a song of resistance, Bella Ciao, a song with a beautiful and unusual structure – the chorus, O bella, ciao, bella, ciao, bella, ciao ciao ciao, is incorporated into the verse; it’s not a separate entity, as in most songs. You could argue that it’s not a chorus at all, it just happens to be the second line of each verse. But emotionally it has the impact of a chorus. The tune starts with two short identical phrases, exploratory, as if trying out the idea of a tune. The words O bella, ciao, bella, ciao, bella ciao ciao ciao give it form, in particular the fierce dipthong of the repeated ciao; the last trio of ciaos give it an uplift with its first change of harmony, and without break it surges forward as the first line of the verse is repeated, finding its true self, and then wraps itself up in a familiar cadence. This tune, which like so many Italian folk tunes is in a minor key, manages to be simultaneously melancholic and uplifting. It tells the story of hard labour, but gives hope and energy – a practical energy (let’s get this work done) as well as an emotional energy. Life mistreats us, but we are defiant.
In the morning when I wake up,
Goodbye, my beauty, goodbye, goodbye,
In the morning when I wake up I must go into the rice fields.
And between the insects and the mosquitoes,
Goodbye, my beauty, goodbye, goodbye,
And between the insects and the mosquitoes, I must labour.
The boss stands tall with his club,
Goodbye, my beauty, goodbye, goodbye,
The boss stands tall with his club as we bend over our work.
O mama, what a torment,
Goodbye, my beauty, goodbye, goodbye,
O mama, what a torment, I cry for you each morning.
But there will come a day,
Goodbye, my beauty, goodbye, goodbye,
There will come a day when we will all work in freedom.
I must go into the rice fields. I must labour. I cry for you. I – I – we – I – we. We bend over our work. We will work in freedom.
In 1900 the repressive King Umberto I, who reacts to protests with violence and martial law, is assassinated by the anarchist Gaetano Bresci. The more liberal Victor Emmanuel III becomes king, and trade unions begin to flourish. The mondine organise protests and strikes. The strikers march from farm to farm carrying red and white banners, singing Bella Ciao and Eight Hours: If eight hours seem few to you / Try working / And you’ll see the difference / Between work and giving orders. The strikes are compromised by crumiri, strike-breakers, prepared to work for even lower wages, but are, partially, temporarily, successful: in 1907 the working day is restricted to eight hours. And then.... under pressure from the farmers, the Prime Minister Giovanni Giolitti revokes the regulations, and the mondine must strike again and again and again.
A grain of rice is approximately 20% husk, 10% bran, 70% starchy endosperm. Processing rice is, essentially, about removing the husk and the bran. The rice is then polished, graded, mixed, packaged. In 1913 a rice-husking factory, the Risiera of San Sabba, is built on the outskirts of Trieste. No longer any need for manual husking, backs bent around a bucket, poles thrashing at the grains. The machine has come. (Though the mondine continue to work in the fields for another fifty years, and continue to struggle for fair treatment.)
Trieste is a city with a past, a contested city, invaded by everyone, sometimes in, sometimes out of Italy; a zone of passage, once a thriving seaport of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, built on big business, but proud of its history of radicalism. One of its heroes is Guglielmo Oberdan, who tries to assassinate Emperor Franz Joseph in 1882. Oberdan arrives in Trieste with two bombs and a revolver in his suitcase. He is immediately arrested, and sentenced to hang. He becomes a martyr, and gives his name to one of the central squares in the city - Piazza Oberdan.
In September 1943, the Germans occupy the area. Odilo Globočnik, previously head of Aktion Reinhard, the project for the systematic extermination of Jews, is put in charge. He brings with him many of the staff he has worked with in Poland, including a group of spectacularly brutal Ukrainian collaborators. They work first under the command of Christian Wirth, and then, after Wirth is assassinated by Slovenian partisans in May 1944, under August Dietrich Allers. The Risiera is commandeered for use as a Polizeihaftlager, a police internment camp, under the command of Josef Oberhauser. For Jews it is a place of detention before deportation to Auschwitz, Dachau, Sobibor; for Italian, Slovenian and Croatian partisans it is death row, without trial. An extermination machine.
The partisans have a song, Bella Ciao:
In the morning when I woke up,
Goodbye, my beauty, goodbye, goodbye,
In the morning when I woke up I found the invader.
O partisan, take me with you,
Goodbye, my beauty, goodbye, goodbye,
O partisan, take me with you, for I feel I’m dying.
And if I die as a partisan,
Goodbye, my beauty, goodbye, goodbye,
If I die as a partisan I want you to bury me.
Bury me on the mountain,
Goodbye, my beauty, goodbye, goodbye,
Bury me on the mountain in the shadow of a beautiful flower.
And the people who pass by,
Goodbye, my beauty, goodbye, goodbye,
The people who pass by will say ‘What a beautiful flower.’
This is the flower of the partisan,
Goodbye, my beauty, goodbye, goodbye,
This is the flower of the partisan who died for our freedom.
This song, borrowed from the mondine, the tune unaltered, feels lyrically significantly different. Yes it is a song of resistance, of defiance, yes it is a song that dreams of freedom, but it is now a song of self-identity. And it is a song that is fixated on the idea of death as a means to freedom, on a romantic idea of heroism. In many versions, the song ends slowly, in an expression of melancholy and pride.
Inside the Risiera, a beautiful brick-built complex arranged around a courtyard, the Nazis build a crematorium (the only such crematorium in Italy) with a forty-metre high chimney, designed by Erwin Lambert, who has been responsible for building crematoria in extermination camps in Poland. The executions – gassing, a blow with a club, hanging, shooting - usually take place at night; the prison officers set dogs loose and play loud music in the camp to cover the cries of the prisoners. The victims’ ashes are scattered into the sea. No beautiful flower, no shade.
As they flee in April 1945, the Nazis destroy the crematorium in an attempt to hide their crimes.
In 1975 the Risiera becomes a museum. The architect is Romano Boico: ‘I planned to remove and fence off rather than to add. Having eliminated the ruined buildings, I cordoned off the area with eleven-metre high concrete walls, designed to create a disquieting entrance. The cordoned-off courtyard intentionally becomes an open-air cathedral.’ The site of the crematorium is marked by a steel floor, slightly sunken; that of the chimney by a forty-metre steel sculpture, which coils like smoke. The place is tidy, sanitised, but profoundly disturbing. The contrast between the quiet beauty of the architecture and the unfathomable horror of what took place here is heartbreaking. The past surges into the present.
In 1976, those suspected of committing the crimes at San Sabba are finally brought to trial at the Court of Assizes in Trieste. There are 174 witnesses. But the bench for the accused is empty. Some have been tried already, some have died, some have been released, some have escaped, some have changed their identity and are living……somewhere, anywhere, everywhere. Oberhauser is given a life sentence, which he never serves as the German authorities are not obliged to hand him over to the Italians, according to an agreement signed in 1942. He continues to sell beer in Munich. Allers has already died during the legal proceedings. Is it a pointless trial? Not entirely. ‘It was not only a need for justice, but a problem of education,’ says Simon Wiesenthal. ‘Everyone must know that crimes like these do not get forgotten.’
The partisan Bella Ciao, despite its specific lyrics, becomes a generalised hymn of resistance and freedom (as well as, inevitably, a football chant). In Italy it is sung to protest against the xenophobic policies of the far-right Lega Nord party. During covid lockdowns it is sung from balconies and rooftops as an expression of sympathy for covid-ravaged Italy. It is recorded by, amongst many others, Yves Montand, the Red Army Choir, Mary Hopkin, Les Ramoneurs de Menhirs, Chumbawumba, Goran Bregovic, Manu Chao and my son Milo’s band Fatberg, a short-lived outfit with an immaculate social media presence and a very small repertoire. Some of these recordings are sweet, some furious, some wistful, some intense, some coy, some jaunty, some riotous. The song is gloriously malleable, able to absorb any emotion. In 2017 it features in the Spanish television series Money Heist. ‘The life of the Professor revolved around a single idea: resistance. His grandfather, who had fought against the fascists in Italy, taught him the song; and he taught us.’ There is a tsunami of remixes and cover versions.
In 2022 the farmers of Punjab, who have taken part in a savage but ultimately successful year of protests against three farm bills of Nehendra Modi’s administration, bring beds, food, cooking utensils, gas canisters, and camp at the Chandigarh-Mohali border to protest against the farming policies of their own state government. Their list of demands includes new rules for the sowing of rice. ‘It is the start of our struggle in Punjab and it will continue until our demands are met. It is a do or die battle.’ Poojan Sahil sings an arrestingly gentle Punjabi version of Bella Ciao, the tune almost unaltered, the lyrics very different: We have left behind all inhibitions, / We sing ‘merciless people, go back, go back.’ / Each grain of soil sings in chorus / ‘Merciless people, go back.’ Sahil’s version inspires a series of bhangra Bella Ciaos, some serious, some party-party, one with daft lyrics about roti. This song will do anything you want.
Much Ado About Nothing, Globe Theatre 2022. A palazzo, inhabited by a group of women, including a band of five female accordionists. The men, partisans, are still fighting. A messenger comes. Slowly, tentatively, he sings two verses of Bella Ciao. Is he euphoric or despondent? It’s difficult to tell – he’s bedraggled, bloody, tired. He delivers the news – it’s good, there have been few losses and victory is at hand. The women feverishly discuss the men who are about to return – Don Pedro, Benedick, Claudio. And these men roar into the auditorium on motorcycles, triumphantly singing two more verses of the song. The women join in. Everyone knows this song. A moment of utter euphoria and belonging. The greetings are more complex, withheld. Beatrice and Benedick have always had a tricky relationship. Hero and Claudio greet each other tentatively but almost immediately fall in love.
Later that night there’s a masked party. There is a wild dance. Hints of Bella Ciao. We hear a slow dreamlike instrumental version of the song as Beatrice teases Benedick and he reels about in confusion, and at the end of the night a wistful solo vocal version, as bad man Don John prepares a vicious trick which will upend the relationship of Hero and Claudio.
And then the war recedes. Love and misunderstanding take over......