THE remainder of my festivals included three plays on the
subject of depression and suicide, and five choral concerts,
including two requiems.
Plays, or any performance art, investigating the human condition
can and should prompt an intellectual audit and realisation of
one's own emotional and mental state of well-being, or otherwise.
The knack is to know whether one is in a fit state to journey these
paths. I am glad to say that my judgement was sound.
Two of the plays were part of the Edinburgh Fringe. I was
invited to attend the first play, Way Back. I am wary of
such invitations. The last one I accepted was for a play that
significantly failed to match the advertised quality or standard. I
therefore wrote an unfavourable review. On this occasion, the text,
direction, and performance were of the highest quality.
Way Back is a black comedy about the events of one
member, Carol, of the Beachy Head Chaplaincy Team (hoping to engage
with people in a troubled state who may be potential suicide
victims) and two male characters, Miles and Randy, whom she
counsels alternately, and then together on the same night.
Carol is not naturally suited to counselling, often just doing
and saying what she hopes might be helpful. She finds herself
thinking things like these people are called jumpers. Jumpers are
meant to be cosy and comforting! Having kissed one of the men, she
tells herself: I only did that because I had run out of ideas.
Her night is further complicated, because Miles has in the past
been a member of the same chaplaincy team: he knows all the tricks
and techniques of counselling and, more ironically, how to prevent
their being effective. Randy, on the other hand, is an ageing
self-obsessed member of a glam-rock band. His career is on the
wane. He is fixated on the apparent absence of paparazzi there to
witness his intended dramatic last performance.
Miles's girlfriend died in a car crash, years ago, driving home
from his place. Since then, he has tormented himself over whether
he was to blame for her death. Might it have been something he
said, something he did? Carol does what she thinks best for each of
Randy is simply at war with the reality of the world versus his
imaginative fantasies; and Miles is intellectually pensive and
doubting, while Carol is being tossed between them in the stormy
seas of their dilemmas and her own emerging emotions.
After lulling into a sense of safety with the black humour in
the opening section, the play has a dramatic and violent middle
section, and a heart-warming, mostly positive end. There was
persuasive and committed acting from the three actors: Aynsleigh
Turner as Carol, Matt Lim as Miles, and Stephen Bermingham as
Randy. The alternating viewpoints and emotional values of the three
characters give the audience much to consider in their value
judgements of the characters in the play, and the characters in
their real lives: especially themselves.
The second play, Shattered, was presented by Chimaera
Productions in the performing space of Café Chamino at the Roman
Catholic cathedral. The majority of the text was lifted directly
from statements of people suffering from mental health issues.
It was presented in a bare room with only lighting and sound
effects. The cast, dressed in paper hospital gowns, narrated the
texts in turn as if stepping up to the plate to assert their guilt,
shame, and even pride. The first girl's mother had tried to kill
herself; the first boy was an academic achiever, but socially less
of an achiever; and the second boy's father had a nervous
breakdown. This boy had been bullied at school, and described his
depression as a dirty secret. Subsequent actors described being the
mother of a severely autistic son and suffering post-natal
depression, or that depressed people are brave: brave to be normal.
One boy had been a non-drinking youth, but started at 18 and went
in deep. We were advised that drink affects your wallet health,
your mental health, and your relationships. Another character
lamented an untidy kitchen, promises made and broken, and drinking,
swearing, and eating fatty food.
This constant barrage of descriptions of unhappy lives lived in
unrewarding circumstances, including NSSI (non-suicidal
self-injury), was broken and highlighted by the entire cast as they
extended arms and repeated weaknesses or failings as a chorus.
Fatty food! Dirty secret! Guilt!
Why should people with nervous illness feel stigmatised or be
perceived as weak and unwilling to cope? I left deeply impressed.
The young cast deserve praise for their message and the energy of
THE third play was part of the Edinburgh International Festival:
Eh Joe by Samuel Beckett, which featured Michael Gambon
and Penelope Wilton.
Joe is an old man, and he is living a miserable existence in a
state of neurosis. He is in his bedsit, and he is dressed for bed.
Before he can lie on his bed, in the hope of sleeping, he needs to
reassure himself that he is safe and secure: not vulnerable to his
imagined demons. In turn, he opens, checks, and locks the window,
the main door, and the wardrobe doors. He looks long and
wonderingly through the doors and window, but shows no emotion.
These imagined demons are people, lovers from his long life. They
are people he did not respect: people he abused.
He retires to his bed. No sooner has he lain down than he is
disturbed by an audible voice. The Voice, the other character in
the play, is that of a woman.
On the left of the stage we see a diminished elderly man sitting
on his bed. The front of the stage is covered by a gauze. Joe's
face is projected on to the right-hand side of this gauze because
all of Joe's acting is non-verbal. The projection of his face is
the full height of the proscenium. He looks passive and unmoved.
Only tremors in his legs and hands suggest any discomfort, but on
his face and in his eyes his inner agony can be seen. Involuntary
twitches on his lips and on his cheeks are as nothing compared with
the erratic and darting movements of his eyes.
The Voice accuses him of much from his past, but focuses on his
poor treatment of her, and of another woman, who was driven to
suicide. On many occasions, she ends her statements and accusations
saying "Eh, Joe." She berates him for trying to hold on to her by
telling her that the best is yet to come. She got fed up waiting
for the best and found another. She found another man who was was
better in every way.
She further taunts Joe by enquiring after his lord. Wait until
he starts in on you, she chides. As she hits her stride of
retrospective accusations, she alludes to one of Joe's previous
lovers who committed suicide. Joe has the expression of a child in
denial, but his facial ticks and his squirming eyes tell the
audience that he is as bad if not worse than the accusations
against him: a trait common to many in our society today. The play
lasts only half an hour. It is, however, a lifelong warning about
doing unto others as you would have done unto yourself.
These three plays have served to provoke thought and perhaps
admission from their audiences. For me, they provoked a need to be
more understanding of people, their circumstances, and their
ST MARY's Episcopal Cathedral has for many years been offering
late-night candlelit performances. I have attended many. On this
occasion, it was a performance of Couperin's Leçons de
ténèbres. The audience were seated in the choir stalls. The
stalls are not comfortable, and on this evening, especially, they
prevented the audience from seeing the performers. The sound was
rather close and not well blended.
It was explained that during the performance there would be
minimal lighting, and that the few candles that were lit would be
extinguished in turn by the Provost, and that the final candle
would not be extinguished, but removed, and at that time there
would be a loud noise in the cathedral to signify the resurrection
and the tearing of the temple veil. The remaining lit candle would
then be brought back. The scene had been set, and expectations were
The singing of the two sopranos, Susan Hamilton and Emma
Versteeg, was very fine, and the viola da gamba playing of Alison
McGillivray was rich and warm. The electric candles on the choir
stalls remained lit throughout; so the extinguishing of the candles
as discussed above was more symbolic than effective. The loud noise
was no more arresting than two planks of wood being banged
together. The sound of the Tattoo fireworks penetrating the
cathedral in the earlier part of the performance had been louder
than this. Two young women noisily stumbling their way up the nave
to the choir stalls mid-performance was another spoiler of what
should have been a serene end to the festival day.
HARRY CHRISTOPHERS brought his Sixteen to the Usher Hall. He has
done so before. He understands how to use the acoustic to best
advantage - and a good thing, too; for, fine as the acoustic is, it
lacks the resonance from which the ecclesiastical music in this
Tallis was the main composer featured. His music opened and
closed the concert. The pieces were tunes from Archbishop Parker's
Psalter, Miserere Nostri, and Spem in alium.
The other composers represented were Robert Wylkynson, Robert
Carver, and James MacMillan. An unbroken line was drawn backwards
from a contemporary composer to the masters of earlier ages.
MacMillan's Miserere was commissioned for The Sixteen
and Harry Christophers in 2009, and is a full setting of Psalm 50.
His other setting was O bone Jesu, another commission from
The Sixteen, dating from 2002. It is amazing how well these modern
settings hold up to their predecessors. Obviously, the text
dictates where the high point should be. It is, therefore, not
surprising that they have much in common. What is significant and
impresses is the colouring and phrasing that MacMillan brings to
the texts. The performances were, as one would expect, informed and
well crafted. MacMillan's altern-ating use of the different voices
in the choir in the Miserere was well executed within the
confines of a concert-hall stage and acoustic.
The concert finished with a performance of the now ubiquitous
Spem in alium. Extra singers joined the platform for this.
The work was well sung, fluent, and clear, but suffered from not
being in a more lively acoustic. That said, it was a fine
performance. I thought it was bad form for the extra singers who
had been brought on for this piece to be banished from the stage
after the first acknowledgement of the applause. How élitist, I
thought. This was hubris on my part, because at the end of the
applause and seemingly the end of the concert, the singers who had
left the platform were heard to be singing an encore from the upper
circle. The entire concert was a bravura performance. Bliss!
THE Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir also performed in the
Usher Hall. They sang works by only four composers, Arvo Pärt,
Alfred Schnittke, Cyrillus Kreek, and Sergei Rachmaninov. This
choir is a great performer, but exudes no grandeur in the singers'
body language. They stood in two rows: women at the front and men
at the back. Compared with The Sixteen, they came across as relaxed
and being in the hall to sing only for the pleasure of the
Pärt is an Estonian. He was represented by two Slavonic Psalms:
Psalm 117, "O praise the Lord all ye nations", and Psalm 131,
"Lord, my heart is not so haughty." Their innate transmission of
Pärt's sound-world was impressive and wholly relaxed. The Alleluia
at the end of Psalm 117 included a wonderful antiphonal effect
between the women in the front and the men in the second row.
Schnittke's three Sacred Hymns: "Hail to the Virgin
Mary", "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God" and "Our Father (The Lord's
Prayer)" were calm, restful, and emotive. I had been expecting
something more aggressively rhythmic. The Our Father, not too
surprisingly, was sung with the most empathy and with colourful
emphasis on the word "temptation" in the section.
Kreek's settings of Psalms 22, 104, and 1, were underpinned by a
strong folk influence. Their gentle colours and pulsing rhythms
brought a great sense of comfort and hope to these troubled and
The highlight and glittering finale of the concert was a
performance of the All-Night Vigil (Vespers) of
Rachmaninov. Divided into 14 sections, this broad work had
beguiling and, at times, very powerful sounds. Vivid in the memory
is section eight, "Praise ye the name of the Lord", and the middle
of section nine, "Early in the morning the myrrh-bearers hastened
weeping to the tomb". Here the music was ethereal, and was followed
by a robust setting of "Blessed art thou, O Lord: teach me thy
statutes". The end of this section is rhythmic and fast. The choir
showed off their skills and technique to great effect.
Section ten was, for me the most impressive in the entire work:
"Having seen the resurrection of Christ". Here, Rachmaninov holds
the notes of the opening singers, and out of those notes emerge
subsequent phrases. This created the effect of text rising out of
text: a suggestion of resurrection itself.
Having sung this taxing concert, the choir sang an encore. The
conductor, Daniel Reuss, started them off and then stood aside,
leaving them to shine as the stars they undeniably are.
THE Tonhalle Orchestra of Zurich gave us but one work: Brahms's
Ein Deutsches Requiem, conducted by David Zinman and
featuring Rachel Harnisch and Florian Boesch.
This was an insightful performance, in which finely judged
orchestral detail and balance shone fresh light on this often
rather solid "big sing". From the outset, there were light and airy
surprises. The opening choral entry of Selig sind (Blessed
are) had attack in the opening "Selig" in the male voices,
from which then sprung the full choir. Then there was the point
where only the timps and the lower strings were heard in pizzicato.
There was a succession of moments and effects that caught the
imagination and lifted the spirits, such as Boesch's colouring of
the word "entschlafen" in Wir werden nicht alle
entschlafen (We shall not all sleep). This set up the next
phrase, "but we shall all be changed", very beautifully. Harnisch
made the most of her solo, and blended well with the Edinburgh
Festival Chorus, who themselves gave another great performance.
Zinman presented the score with seemingly effortless finesse.
Donald Runnicles conducted his BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra
with the Edinburgh Festival Chorus in Verdi's Messa da
Requiem. The quartet of soloists were Erin Wall (soprano),
Karen Cargill (mezzo-soprano), Bryan Hymel (tenor), and Eric Owens
Runnicles approached the work as an interlocking sequence of
musical set pieces. Well-judged detail was to be heard all through
the work, from the hushed opening of Requiem Aeternam to the
off-stage brass, located in the upper circle, for the Dies Irae and
the ravishing playing of the two oboes in the "cum vix
justus". (They were singled out for applause at the end of the
The "Rex tremendae", "Lacrymosa", and
Offertorio were the high points of this performance, showing how
the massed forces could flex their muscles and create moments of
poise and calm as required.
The soloists were good, andvery attentive to the conductor's
interpretation. The soprano (Erin Wall) and mezzo (Karen Cargill)
were well matched, notably in the "Recordare" and
"Juste judex". Strong contributions from the tenor (Brian
Hymel) came in the Kyrie and "Ingemisco". The bass (Eric
Owens) brought warmth to the "Mors stupebit" and great
strength to the "Confutatis". Erin Wall gavea fine account
of the closing Libera Me.
Runnicles gave a performance that was more likely to cause one
to think of the warm colours of amber than of the flashy blinding
light of diamonds. This was a splendid final concert by the
Edinburgh Festival Chorus, who made spirited and well-controlled
contributions to all the concerts I heard them singing in.
Christopher Bell, their chorus master, deserves at least two gold