Mark Fisher asks Neil Bartlett what he’s doing staging a murder-mystery musical.
Neil Bartlett has long been at the forefront of avant-garde theatre. Undoubtedly accessible and entertaining, his work has nonetheless drawn on esoteric sources. with a provocative and intelligent performance style that gives equal weight to text, visuals and music. So when his company, Gloria. announces that it is to perform a musical version of a work of popular crime ﬁction — Ruth Rendell‘s A Judgement in Stone— with Sheila Hancock as its star, you could be forgiven for thinking that something odd is afoot. . For writer and director. Bartlett, however, things are quite normal. ‘Our work is characteristically derived from odd sources,’ he points out. ‘lt’s odd to do a show derived from a set oflate 19th century paintings. followed by a show derived from texts by Balzac, followed by a show derived from an anecdote from the life ofJean Rhys. People who haven‘t seen our work might think it odd — “they’re an experimental company, they do difficult work. ie work that nobody wants to see, how weird that they’re doing something popular“ — whereas people who have seen our work will know that it is very entertaining and it is not surprising at all that a lot of people should want to see it.‘ Indeed, but the company is hardly in the business of staging West End money-spinners. Bartlett may be staying faithful to the original story — he, like the company, is a big Rendell fan — including its revelation of the plot in the first sentence (‘Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write‘), but he has not
Sheila Hancock and Beverley Klein: the murderou
lost his concern for creating multi-textured theatre where meaning is layered upon meaning. ‘Our work piles up sequences and images which then begin to mean different things as you see them in different conjunctions.‘ he explains. ‘In Sarrasine, you see an opera singer in a big black gown doing a number. but then you see that again and it begins to acquire different meanings by the way that it‘s done and the context in which it’s done. In the same way, you see Eunice cleaning the house and you see that many times, but each time it’s done. you realise that it means something different. It doesn’t operate by just telling the story.’
This is faithful, argues Bartlett, because Rendell herselfdoes far more than simply narrate. Certainly this 1977 novel describes how an illiterate housemaid and her Bible-thumping friend came to kill a happy middle-class family one quiet Sunday evening, but Rendell also likes to manipulate the reader, sometimes into confronting prejudices, other times into taking sides— if you don‘t like the
Coverdale family. she seems to tease. are you in favour ofthe psychopaths?
In transferring the novel from page to stage. Bartlett has kept Rendell’s dialogue, but written his own lyrics which have been set to music by long-time collaborator Nicholas Bloomfield. Performed acoustically and with a cast of six, the show will not be confused with a Can’tpr spectacular, but there are a dozen distinct songs which are thematically through—composed, giving it the hallmarks ofa conventional musical. ‘lt’s very passionate and melodic and apart from that all one can say is that it‘s Nicholas Bloomfield’s music and it’s an original score,’ says Bartlett. ‘There are moments where you feel as though it‘s refering to the emotional world of Rodgers and Hammerstein, where peOple sing good solid tunes, with good solid lyrics about emotional situations. There are moments when it seems to be allied to something like Bernard Herrmann’s film music; very tight, passionate, driven, mood music. When it gets to a song, you really do get a song. preople don‘t come out
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singing the tunes. we’ve failed.’
This being Gloria, however, the music is not simply used to forward the plot and keep the toes tapping; it is inextricably bound up with character. The illiteracy of Eunice is paralleled with her inability to sing, while the literate Coverdales do not just sing. they perform with disciplined. harmonious sophistication. But as Eunice grows in murderous confidence, so she finds her musical voice. ‘In our adaptation, it’s the music which articulates Eunice’s world,’ says Bartlett. ‘The family sings all the time. They’re lyrical singers and they sing complex words. Eunice uses pure music. The deep shape of the show is a conﬂict between four people who sing and one person who doesn‘t. But by the end of the show that situation is reversed and they are silent and she is singing. It’s more than a parallel, it’s finding a completely new way to re-create the fundamental storyline ofthe book.’
A Judgement in Stone, Gloria, Tramway, Glasgow, Wed 20—Sa123 May.
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Audiences who have been brought up within a literary theatre tradition often have difficulty with the non-verbal nature of contemporary dance. Alan Graig of The X-Factor and choreographer-in-resldence at Edinburgh’s Assembly Rooms has worked throughout the community for many years and seems to understand this. ‘Hopefully our dance is not so
abstract that no one knows what we’re doing,’ he says. ‘lt’s not meant to be deep and meaningful.’
The x-Factor was launched in 1990 by ;
Greig with Raymond Kaye, also a popular teacher in the city. They created a duet for the Feet First dance festival at‘the Traverse. Kaye subsequently left, and was replaced by Brigid McCarthy and Dawn Hartley. ‘The direction of the company then changed,’ says Grelg, ‘allowing the dancers more creative input, and finally letting them choreograph as well.’ Their combined talents have meshed well, Grelg adds. ‘The dance is
structured in such a way- quite fragmented — that you won’t know who choreographed each bit.’
Earlierthis year, Mayfest invited Scottish companies to present ideas for a joint performance. Instead, the
§ panel, surprisingly devoid of dance
practitioners, chose The X-Factor to form part of a double-bill with English choreographer Mark Murphy, who was commissioned to make a new piece using Scottish-based dancers,
v Christine Devaney and Steve Hooper.
The X-Factor will be presenting a new half-hour dance called Build-Up, a title coined from top American composer
Steve Reich’s method of layering one musical idea over another, which has been translated into dance terms by the company. The result mightwell fool those of us who expect choreographic climaxes to come at the end of a piece. The company aims to challenge such assumptions with not only its movement, but also its lighting techniques. ‘Don’t come with any preconceptions,‘ warns Grelg, ‘because the show isn‘t dramatic or plot-worthy. We hope it’s inventive and entertaining.’ (Tamsin Grainger) Build-Up, Mitchell Theatre, Glasgow,
The List 8—21 May 199215