It is a long way from the chart-topping Communards to experimental opera: Sarah Jane Morris and her colleagues talk to The List about The Sleep, receiving its premiere at Mayfest.
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Sarah Jane Morris has been fortunate in her voice. It has brought a career she didn‘t know she wanted — she only began singing in order to get her Equity card — and not inconsiderable success with the Communards single Don't Leave Me This Way. on which she made a guest appearance. going to no. I last year.
Naturally low, it‘s a voice which spans three octaves and with training could be capable of four and a half. Its owner still isn‘t exactly sure how to use it.
‘l‘ve never just been into a recording studio with a microphone and tried to see where my voice would go‘. says Sarah Jane. She doesn‘t share the commercial priorities of the record companies and is keen to explore her full musical range. She is quite prepared not to succeed. it‘s just that she‘d rather try than not know.
‘Not a case of tarting up an idea’
Her style is likely to change many times as the nature her current project demonstrates. Called The Sleep, which will premiere during Glasgow‘s Mayfest. is the third collaboration between composer Jeremy Peyton-Jones and the former director of Impact Theatre Co-operative. Pete Brooks. Impact, which folded last spring, was a highly thought of experimental theatre company whose trademarks were a non-narrative and very visual style, for which comics — ‘a very neglected form‘ — were a great source of inspiration.
Bang in the middle of rehearsals. in the dark cavernous space which is the Nuffield Theatre at Lancaster University (where Brooks teaches) Sarah Jane readily admits she is in unchartered territory. Playing Rose, the leading role, will be all discovery.
The Sleep is no soft option. Its theme — the subjective nature of reality — could easily be pretentious or precious. Nevertheless it could be very powerful in Brooks‘ style oftheatre which doesn‘t explain itself so much as offer its subject in all its unsolved complexity.
‘It‘s not a case of tarting up an idea and making it palatable‘ says Brooks. Rather he deliberately integrates form with ideas, absorbing the one into the other.
Rose is a victim of a disease called post-encephalitic Parkinsonism or more colloquially, ‘sleepy sickness‘. As a result she is thrown into a catatonic state which is neither asleep nor awake. Poised between the two she fashions a world of her own, creating a fantasy which is at odds with the rest of the world.
The disease has been well- documented, not least because there was a rush ofenthusiasm when trials were carried out in the Sixties on new drugs which it was hoped would bring a cure. ‘It has been portrayed as a great humanist experiment’ says Brooks, ‘but many of the people who were treated found themselves in even more severe catatonia fairly quickly and the success rate is seen as almost nil.’
However The Sleep is not out to judge. While
those involved are agreed the whole subject is much more morally ambiguous than has been acknowledged, it is not intended to show Rose as a victim.
‘I‘m more critical of the lack of analysis that has gone into it than the thing itself.‘ says Brooks. I suppose it has quite a sixties idea behind it. the idea ofwhat is madness and whether someone who develops schizophrenia in response to an intolerable situation is mad. Its really to do with thatf
Brooks is a quiet. approachable man from whom ideas ﬂood out in conversation. He has an unfashionable concern not with ‘issues‘ but with ‘the things which come before that‘. How and why opinions are made and lives are lived.
The form of The Sleep echoes this approach. ‘The world which Rose creates is given an operatic convention which is a very artificial. romantic form‘ he explains. He and Peyton—Jones didn‘t sit down and decide to write an opera, but ‘you use this idea so the fact that you‘re using it, with all its associations offiction. means something.‘ It won‘t use opera voices unconventionally to carry the narrative but
Not an easy personality to locate
rather to comment on the ideas behind it. Saran Jane‘s voice. which is not operatically trained, will be used as a deliberate contrast.
‘I‘ve taken the idea ofthe two world‘s— Rose‘s interior world. which is portrayed with quite a lot of lyricism. in contrast to quite a hellish world which invades her through the administration of drugs. where I‘ve gone for a very harsh, mechanistic aggressive sort ofsound‘ says Peyton-Jones.
TheSleep shares its ideas with the legend of Orpheus and Euridice in which Orpheus goes into the underworld to rescue his beloved — but dead — Euridice. The myth is known in various forms and The Sleep uses the version found in a poem by Rilke. the German poet. In this. Euridice ‘has no conception ofwhy he‘s trying to take her out. She is completely in another world and the idea that we‘re taking is that he‘s a fool to try and bring her back because she‘s dead‘. according to Peyton-Jones. Similarly. in Rose‘s story the drugs bring her out ofone so-called prison straight into another. that of a mental hospital in New York.
Brooks‘ recent play Imitation ofLife at the Bush theatre in London also resembles the territory of The Sleep. ‘It was about two people battling to tell their own story and the idea that when you meet someone you write them into the novel that is your life and they. presumably, write you into the novel that's theirs — so who's the author of the relationship'?‘
Sarah Jane‘s task in playing Rose is made more complex in that ‘she‘s not really playing Rose, it‘s Rose‘s perception of herself as Peyton-Jones explains. ‘Not only that. she‘s being operated on so she‘s not behaving normally. One ofthe symptoms of the whole catatonic state was complete loss ofwill and she has tried to organise what little control she has around herself.‘
It will evidently not be an easy personality to locate as Sarah Jane is the first to admit. ‘It‘s going to be very unusual. very strange‘. But she is cheerful and optimistic. ‘At least I‘m not going to make a complete balls up!‘
The Sleep runsfrom 4—8 May, Mitchell
Theatre Glasgow. Sarah Jane Morris should
(1150 be appearing in an evening ofjazz based cabaretat the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
on 9 May. (Not confirmed at time ofgoing
to press). See Theatre Listings. Happy Endare 0,,
L Channel4 's Alter Image on 5 May. See Media.
8The List 1— 14 May