Music Asian Dub Foundation [Steve Chandra Savale, Babu Stormz, Sanjay Tailor]
Libretto Shan Khan
Conception (and additional lyrics) Steve Chandra Savale
Musical arrangement Asian Dub Foundation and Gianluca Gatti, Ramzy Mikhail & Stéphane René of Diaspora Music
Orchestrations Robert Summers, James Morgan & Stephen Higgins
Muammar Al-Gaddafi Ramon Tikaram
Fatima Sharon Duncan-Brewster
Salah Al-Bouzaid Riz Ahmed
King Sayyid Idris Al-Senussi / Revolutionary Committee Chairman Abdi Gouhad
Mr Mister Ben Bishop
Ronald Reagan Martin Turner
News reporter David Cardy
Major Abdulsalam Jalloud Nicholas Khan
Omar Al-Mukhtar Geoffrey Burton
Gaddafi’s Mother / Bedouin woman / Megaphone woman Bridgitta Roy
Politician Nigel Cooke
Gaddafis sons / Libyan boys Joshua Palmer & James Hameed
Gaddafis daughter / Libyan girl Megan Carver
Numerous performers assigned to the roles of Female bodyguards, Libyan women, Soldiers, Libyan men & Libyan girl
Asian Dub Foundation
The Third Universal Band
Strings, brass and percussion of the Orchestra of English National Opera
David Freeman Director
Es Devlin Designer
Wolfgang Göbbel Lighting
Burst TV London Video production design
Hakeem Onibudo Choreographer
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 7 September, 2006
Venue: The Coliseum, London
A glance round at the cultural ‘great and good’ present for this first night (with one or two notable exceptions – perhaps unhappy with the subject matter) confirmed this was to be no conventional English National Opera commission. But, several years in the making, “Gaddafi: A Living Myth” proved to be no conventional opera – if, indeed, it can be considered opera, or even a type of music-theatre, in the first instance.
Certainly the subject is an intriguing one, and rich in dramatic possibility. As ruler of Libya for some 37 years, Muammar Al-Gaddafi has pursued a course dictated in equal measure by personal whim and systematic planning; having gone through phases of Socialist radicalism, pan-Arab as well as pan-African nationalism, and state-sponsored (however covertly) terrorism, before his current rapprochement with the West – in what is either an unashamed volte-face or ingenious reinvention, or perhaps both. Above all, his political longevity and sheer personal charisma make him a theatrical ‘front-man’ like few others in the modern era: one able to dominate the stage and those around him with impunity.
And, in a work dominated, for its part, by rap – which might be described as an amalgam of political and religious demagoguery (both irrespective of ‘belief’) – against an essentially rhythmic backing, there can be little doubt that Ramon Tikaram acts the part (and projects the verbal clarity of Shan Khan’s text) as convincingly as he looks it. Whether addressing those on stage or in the audience, the conviction with which he projects the role – in all its wilful contradictions – is palpable; to an extent that one cannot imagine the real-life figure, in the unlikely event that he should ever see the production, not being at least outwardly impressed.
The remaining roles are offshoots of the Gaddafi persona: on the one hand, the earnestness of right-hand man-turned-traitor Salah Al-Bouzaid, the soul-searching of Major Abdulsalam Jalloud and the (almost) death-defying loyalty of Fatima; on the other hand, the economic chameleon Mr Mister, the detached cynicism of the Politician and – most tellingly – the beneficent intolerance of Ronald Reagan, rendered by Martin Turner with an authenticity that ought to keep him gainfully employed hereafter.
David Cardy’s News Reporter is a lively if simplistic way of maintaining narrative continuity, while Bridgitta Roy and Abdi Gouhad both left their mark in assuming a number of roles.
All of which only exacerbated the central problem of ‘Gaddafi’: that of any number of characters in search of an opera – or, at least, a stage-drama with a modicum of ‘wrought’ musical invention. The problem with rap-based performance, as also the drums ‘n’ bass-dominated electronic backdrop, is partly their unsuitability to development – or even intensification – over more than two hours; partly the fact that both idioms have long since ossified into cliché and stereotype – making them as radical today asa speech by Tony Blair (whose cameo representation towards the end effected the most spontaneousaudience response of the evening).
What little musical input – vocal or instrumental – there is came worryingly close to a cut-price “Evita”, with the members of Asian Dub Foundation (their music redolentof a diluted Ananda Shankar) and Diaspora injecting requisite degrees of urban and synthetic World Music – neither of which was able to make the work more musically arresting than it proved to be.
The staging itself was equal measures of immediacy and tedium. David Freeman went a considerable way to imposing theatrical coherence on a project whose dramatic follow-through might otherwise have been at a premium – and Es Devlin’s designs, though not free of Arabic slogan, at least offered a representative scenic backdrop and also sufficient space for the performers to carry out their roles.Wolfgang Göbbel’s lighting and Hakeem Onibudo’s choreography were both of the high-octane variety, with the headphone-donning James Morgan exercising close control over proceedings in what was nearer to co-ordination than conducting as such. None of this could yet prevent the opening half of Act One from being other than a GCSE history lesson (replete with ‘in your face’ video montages), and if much of Act Two evinced a more satisfying coming-together of image and action, the absence of any real characterisation – not to mention musical substance – prevented the work from assuming any deeper creative resonance.
All of which is a pity, since ‘Gaddafi’ had the makings of a stage-work not only with a difference, but also one that rang the changes in terms of what could be presented on a European opera stage. For all its failings, it proved far more entertaining (for this white Euro-centric reviewer at least) than did the expedient rehashing in, say, Lorin Maazel’s recent “1984”; but this is merely to acknowledge that, whatever the aspirations of Steve Chandra Savale et al in putting the present work together, they needed to aim higher in terms of its musical and dramatic effectiveness. That said, it would be a pity were ‘Gaddafi’ to go down as another failure of well-intentioned state sponsorship: the need for a new type of opera is there and the potential of such a concept as this remains undoubted.
- Further performances on 8, 9, 14, 15 & 16 September at 8.00
- Box Office: 0870 145 1700
- English National Opera