’2'lhe List ll) - In August l ‘)‘)ll
Andrew Pulver interrupts rehearsals ofSarrasine and talks to
Neil Bartlett and Nicholas Bloomfield about the art ofthe gorgeous.
woman arrives in a darkened room at midnight. and she says “In 1952 l was at a party in Paris and I saw this creature sing. and every night since then I‘ve heard this voice in my dreams. Now someone claims that he is still alive and that. unbelievably. he will appear at midnight". lt strikes twelve and a door opens; and indeed the
castrato returns and sings to her. The castrato and i
the woman together then begin to play out the story of Sarrasinc.‘ Thus Neil Bartlett describes the opening moments of (iloria‘s new production for the 1990 Fringe. Bartlett. veteran ofTheatre de Complicité and Red Shift. and long-time musical collaborator Nicholas Bloomfield have transformed Balzac‘s short story Surrusine into a stage performance with the intelligence and sensitivity that the company has come to exemplify. Balzac‘s tale of deception and intrigue. murder and obsession is. in its gaudy sensibilities. the ideal vehicle for Bartlett‘s ground-breaking theatre. which blends music and text in the distillation ofextraordinarily powerful theatrical imagery.
Music. and specifically the castrato voice. is the controlling medium of .S'urrusine‘s performance. But Bartlett is keen to scotch any idea that he is looking for sensation. "l‘he music in the piece isn‘t about reconstructing the castrato voice: we‘re using the image of the castrato to talk about what we want to talk about. It's not an exercise in historical pastiche. or indeed in just trying to make someone sing like a castrato.’ He is keen to stress the symbolic ramifications ofthe castrato figure as a presiding image. “The thing about the castrato is not just vocal range. but also sexual range. and emotional range. and social range because the castrato has the voice of an angel but the body of a monster. And a castrato is a man but he‘s not a man because hes been castrated: he‘s a woman because he plays female roles in operas. yet he's not a woman because everybody knows he‘s a man; he‘s a child because he‘s been castrated. and he‘s not a child because he‘s the highest-paid professional artist of his day. and famous as a hard-nosed business man.‘
As the music trawls through three centuries worth of material. a four-piece chamber ensemble will accompany the four singer-performers. Bloomfield comments. ‘The style ofthe music varies a great deal. because we‘ve taken as our premise that although [a Zambinella. the castrato. was born in the 18th century. he has lived through to the present day — so he‘s in effect 250 years old — and his repertoire
VOICES OF ANGELS
has taken in those 250 years. He has his original castrato repertoire — Handel and other 18th century stuff— but he lived through the 19th century. through grand opera; and then he became a vaudeville singer and sang as a chanteuse and a cabaret artiste in Paris in the 1920s. The musical references. and the way it is written. is reﬂecting all those styles. and putting them together.’
Only one recording of a castrato is known to exist. a series of Latin Masses sung by Alessandro Moreschi in the Sistine Chapel in 1902. ‘Technically the singing was very refined. and extraordinarily beautiful. we are told; but also its all the old vocal trickery. the oldest tricks in the book — sweeping up. holding high notes for ever and ever. sobbing and trilling — it's as vulgar as the way we would say a singer like Shirley Bassey or Liza Minnelli is vulgar. in that they produce incredible emotional effects by manipulating their audience. Everybody knows that. they are wonderful at it. and that's why we love to hear those women.‘
The falsetto voice of Bloolips drag queen Bette Bourne provides one halfof the castrato: the other is actress Beverley Klein. The splintering of the castrato’s voice is a deliberate strategy in the service of Bartlett‘s vision of a contemporary theatre. .S'urmsine is no ordinary story — it enjoys an exceptional status as the subject of Roland Barthes‘ seminal work of post-structural ideology S X. ’All ofour work is based around ideas of taking the visual and verbal language of performance apart. and putting it back together in a new way. We‘re not employing the traditional vocabulary of theatre. and clearly were very influenced by Barthes. But I don’t want to stress this because it makes it sound as if we have some theoretical programme which underpins our theatre. and it makes our performance sound as though it’s primarily an intellectual exercise with an intellectual justification. which just isn‘t the case.‘
Don‘t be fooled by the disarming tone: Bartlett may be reluctant to own up to it but his theatrical intelligence is in overdrive: ‘lt‘s one of the stories where the force of the central image is out ofall proportion to the story itself— like. for instance. Jekyll and Hyde. or The Picture Of Dorian Gray — a central image which is the stuff of dreams and whose power you can‘t explain. That‘s why Roland Barthes had to write an incredibly long book. which takes the story apart word by word. ransacking the story. trying to find out how it had
its effect. The central image is this gorgeous