Wednesday, 21 February 2018

'Satyagraha' at the Coliseum

Philip Glass's 'Satyagraha' is on at the Coliseum with the English National Opera. I saw his 'Akhenaten' there a couple of years ago  and thought it would be interesting to see another of his works. I wasn't quite sure what I was watching a couple of years ago and that experience was repeated last week at this performance.

The production tells a version of the tale of Mahatma Ghandi's early years in South Africa, some of which I'm vaguely familiar with but not to the extent of knowing about the specific incidents we saw on that stage. I'm also, you'll be surprised to hear, I'm sure,  not familiar with Sanskrit so couldn't follow the tale by listening to the words since there were no surtitles. It all came down to the visuals, and some of those were astonishing.

Phelim McDermott's visuals left the stage bare at times and at others incredibly rich with spectacle built upon spectacle. Giant animals made out of baskets appear out of nowhere, gods on stilts battle for supremacy and random pages from a newspaper create a swirling maelstrom that Ghandi both disappears into and is created from. What on earth is this? What am I watching? The answer is that I didn't know while I watched and still don't know. I don't really want to know since I'd much rather revel in the random artistry of the piece.

The singers and chorus are dressed variously as Victorian ladies and gentlemen and this gradually changes to dhotis and saris for many of the characters as the story progresses and Ghandi rejects British modes and adopts his traditional Indian dress and traditions. It struck me as rather strange at the time, something quite challenging in it's own way since we rarely see a stage full of people dressed in what we think of as traditional Indian garb.

The music is slow and stately, swirling and repetitious with the same phrases seemingly repeated endlessly. Far from making me nod off it actually kept my attention riveted to the music, possibly simply waiting to spot the moment when it changed, perhaps? That will remain a mystery. I have to say that I don't think I could listen to it without the visuals. This is definitely one of those pieces that relies on the whole, rather than it's parts, in order to work.

Toby Spence sang Ghandi with sopranos Charlotte Beamont and Anna-Clare Monk. Karen Kamensek was the conductor (who also conducted 'Akhnaten' a couple of years ago).

While I quite like simply revealing in the experience and not wanting to try too hard to understand it, something that simply increased my frustration as the production moved forward was the continuous slow pace of every movement. How on earth can someone physically move so slowly across a stage for just under three hours? Even the memory of it makes me feel frustrated and need to move with increasing speed.  I can only give the performers kudos for sustaining it but, c'mon people, have some regard for it might make the audience feel!

I wonder what the next Glass production might bring?

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