Double bills can often be problematic. Rarely do they form a harmonious combination: one can appear simply to be a filler for the other, a make-weight to lengthen an evening; or the topics and themes addressed pull in different and confusing directions; or an overly sharp contrast between comedy and tragedy leaves an unsatisfactory taste like too many mixed drinks at a wedding. It is one of the signal achievements of The Clown of Clowns that the two halves of the evening are perfectly integrated and offer many illuminating points of contact and insight between the two.
The first half is given over to a performance of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, a work for soprano and chamber group that still contrives to startle and confront an audience over a century after its premiere. It is worth pausing a moment to consider carefully what the challenges are. Much is made of the atonality of the settings and the use of Sprechgesang (rhythm and pitch are set but simply not sustained), but in fact these are the lesser of the issues. You can get used to the sound world after some exposure to it not least because the use of traditional formal devices in the writing (canon, fugue, dance forms etc..) help to make it legible. More tricky to get your head around are the initially bewildering texts – 21 symbolist poems – and the presiding genre – melodrama – which is lost and alien territory to us now. While the figure of Pierrot, the melancholy clown, is a familiar trope, the French poetry (by Albert Giraud and translated into German by Otto Hartleben) plunges us into a world of dark even threatening associations that are at the same time frustratingly abstract.
There is no specified narrative, only a series of suggestions involving exploration of the destructive consequences of uninhibited pursuit of desire into depravity. Imagery associated with the sensual appeal of drink, dance, music, jewellery, perfume and fine clothes is explored, together with a range of symbolic meanings associated with the moon, disease, the night, religion – of course – death. There is a pervading tone of nostalgia and regret for lost love, happiness and homeland. While some of this comes across in the helpful parallel translations and texts provided in the programme what we totally miss now is the way in this work is intended as both a celebration and subversion of the popular genre of melodrama – spoken text with an instrumental underscore. We know of melodrama, if we know of it at all, as an important precursor of film music; but what Schoenberg is doing here is taking a tired, complacent genre of bourgeois self-congratulation and reshaping it as a daring vehicle for German Expressionism.
Accordingly any attempt to reinterpret this work needs recover a sense of direction and risk in the acts of emotional communication that lie at its heart, and here the conception of Artistic Director, Leo Geyer, and Director, Joel Fisher, works extremely well. The five instrumentalists are placed at the back of the performance space, and for each of the 21 numbers there is a parallel series of balletic interactions on stage. These are either between the singer, Emma Stannard, dressed in contemporary style as if she has just walked out of a painting by Klimt, and Pierrot (Matt Petty), dressed in white overalls, or between Petty and the other two main characters with whom Pierrot is associated in the commedia dell’arte tradition – Columbine (Amelia O’Hara) and Cassander (Peter Moir), or just Pierrot alone. Each of these movements is focused not on narrative definition but instead on defining the emotion that is the kernel of each poem. This proved to be both genuinely illuminating and tastefully unprescriptive .
Pierrot is a hard work to bring off in concert performance let alone in staged form, and all the performers deserve great credit. Stannard was fully inside the role as well as on top of the notes, and the instrumentalists were incisive and crisp in their ensemble. Within a very limited space, the dancers, and Petty above all, sketched affecting shapes with both technical skill and rare poetic grace, while finding moments of violence and loss of control that externalized the unstable and unpalatable nature of the verse. Petty’s work captured the pathos, self-hatred and suppressed fury of Pierrot with precision thanks to the choreography of Alfred Taylor Gaunt, who was fully to the pitch of how to interpret this work through movement. Leo Geyer directed with authority and complete command of an immensely demanding score.
Though only 40 minutes long, this first half was emotionally draining and it was hard to imagine how it would or indeed could be followed. However, the second half – a ‘circus extravaganza’ called Sideshows, with a text by Martin Kratz set to a jazz inspired score by Geyer – was an utter delight. Geyer reappeared to direct proceedings dressed in a Ringmaster’s full fig, and the players donned costume (in one case, drag) reappearing as Honker, Scraper and Mrs Scraper, and Tickler. The music was in fact as uncompromising for the listener as the Schoenberg, but the wit, brio, and style of the players, dancers and singer (Rachel Maby) created the characters most economically. In quick succession we witnessed clowns, a fortune teller, a dancing bear that escaped control, a snake that was all too effectively charmed by clarinettist Antanas Makṧtutis, and a child performer, Delilah, with her bearded mother. Traditional conventions of the circus and of ballet and orchestral decorum were delightfully subverted while still tracing continuities of character and mood with the first half of the evening.
This show is a collaborative venture between two different ensembles – Constella Ballet and Orchestra on the one hand, and Khymerikal on the other. It is a vindication of the belief of all the participants in the liberating, mutually reinforcing relationship between dance and contemporary music. The synergy and interpretative collaboration between the two art forms was made magnificently manifest in the process. The evening as a whole provided a superbly invigorating beginning to the Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola. We were given new insights into an old work that made it seem much less forbidding and more accessible than usual; and in the second half the joyous, madcap side to the life of the clown and the circus was given full rein in a new one. Tradition and its subversion, the two governing tenets of Grimeborn, were in in this instance in perfect balance.