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Theatre review: Handel’s Messiah: The Live Experience (Theatre Royal)

16 December 2022

Susan Gray attends the ‘immersive’ adaptation of Handel’s Messiah

© Craig Fuller

Handel’s “Messiah”: The Live Experience

Handel’s “Messiah”: The Live Experience

PROFITS from the first performance of Messiah in 1742 were donated to Dublin’s debtors’ prison. And Classical Everywhere’s staging at Drury Lane incorporated similarly laudable aims: making Handel’s devotional oratorio appeal to a wide audience.

But adding two poetry performers, three dancers, and a towering display screen to a stage bursting with the London Symphony Chorus, the English Chamber Orchestra, four entrancing and exciting soloists, and Gregory Batsleer’s balletic baton suggests Everything But the Kitchen Sink as a better producers’ name — as that is what they threw at the audience.

© Craig FullerDanielle de Niese in the Dury Lane production

The performance begins with an indecipherable whispered prayer, as a fiery sun burns on the screen, and stockinged-feet dancers run along the aisles on to the stage as the first melancholy notes sound. Then the soprano Danielle de Niese, the mezzo-soprano Idunnu Münch, and the baritone-bass Cody Quattlebaum appear fleetingly, before the tenor Nicky Spence sings gently, but expressively, the prophecy “Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for the Lord.”

As the choir stands to sing “And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,” the dancing trio, clad variously in mustard linen, red silk, and orange sequins, lie down. Attention is further stretched when the actor Martina Laird, wearing a grey boiler suit and protection vest, voices: “You are the future made flesh. . . the landscape of the body is torn.” Later, the Doctor Who actor Arthur Darvill will respond: “A song is . . . A babe becoming a child.” The programme informs us their roles are Mother and Child, possibly staging a Stabat Mater play-within-a-play, but it was confusing.

Instead of heightening the expectation of de Niese’s first item, “There were shepherds abiding in the field,” the platitudinous blank verse and dancing diluted Messiah’s power, pulling focus from the Authorised Version words.

Dressed in vintage Vivienne Westwood black voile and gold sequins, de Niese showed her star quality with an awe-struck rendering of “Rejoice greatly. . . He shall speak peace unto the heathen,” as she glided upstage. Münch’s soulful “He shall feed his flock” took flight from the stirring introductory notes and was a highlight of the evening. Quattlebaum’s voice has dramatic depth, but its power can be at odds with clear diction. And a stronger sense of conviction would have reassured as he sang: “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light.”

© Craig FullerArthur Darvill in the Drury Lane production

Acts II and III underscored the production’s faults and merits. Caravaggio-style lighting on de Niese, holding a candle to sing “I know that my Redeemer liveth,” added to the emotion of the piece. But unscheduled audience participation to Child’s question “When a marble is shattered can it be put together again?” — “No!’ — did not add reverence. And the proximity of dancers’ feet to audience heads, as they jeté’ed in the aisles and we stood for the “Hallelujah Chorus”, brought a touch of Peaky Blinders: The Rise (from the same “immersive” stable) to this Messiah staging, but surely not in ways that anyone intended.


Handel’s “Messiah”: The Live Experience was staged at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London, on 6 December.

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