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Village Underground, Spitalfields festival, London

There are many items of interest on this summer's Spitalfields festival programme. This arrangement of two of Samuel Beckett's monologues (from Fizzles) for performance alongside specially commissioned music by Alec Roth, seemed prominent among them. The impression was short lived.

Struggling in low light to find my seat, I noticed the ushers were all muttering to themselves, as if simultaneously afflicted by the same madness. "Ashes to ashes" was the reply to my inquiry about the whereabouts of seats E14 and 15. But, of course, these were not ushers but actors, whose independent, indistinct mumblings allowed the performance to begin before the performance had begun. Eight members of the Sixteen choir had, meanwhile, assembled behind each audience wing arrayed in flasher Mackintoshes. They sang stretched vowels in unspeakably anodyne harmonies, the occasional syncopation radiating shockwaves of cliche-recognition through the audience. The stage lit up to reveal dead leaves and sticks, drawn up to a hedge-seat occupied by the actor Alan Howard. Made up as a tramp, he fixed a glower on the half distance and intoned Beckett's monologues, lingering with mystifying intensity over each word because, well, isn't that how Beckett sounds?

Beckett's musicality is often noted in the sharply defined rhythmic profiles of his prose-poetry, and in the dense polyphonic interplay of short, carefully controlled motivic cells. But the wonder of this music derives also from the layered semantic crescendos, where the struggle of the subject for individuation, meaning and equilibrium is just as precisely choreographed. Read it plainly and the miracle is there for any reader to see. It is less apparent, however, when you smother it in cliches so richly strewn that even a mathematical genius would lose count of them. Shrink-wrap it further in a musical idiom so trite that all intention is sapped inexorably from the material, and even the hardiest existentialist would abandon the will to abandon the will to live.

Rating: 1/5

Guy Dammann
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Composer: Alec Roth
Ensemble: The Sixteen Choir
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