Peter Maxwell Davies: Music-Theatre Double Bill

“Eight Songs for a Mad King”

Kelvin Thomas (bass-baritone)
Members of Psappha

Tim Carroll – director
Soutra Gilmour – design
Simon Opie – lighting

“Mr Emmet Takes a Walk”

Nicole Tibbels (soprano)
Richard Lloyd-Morgan (baritone)
Jonathan Best (bass-baritone)
Psappha conducted by Etienne Siebens

David Poutney – director
Robert Innes-Hopkins – design
Davy Cunningham – lighting

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 17 January, 2002
Venue: Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, London

Despite a quarter-century spent mining his own seam of large-scale European symphonism, Peter Maxwell Davies remains synonymous with the pungent, provocative music-theatre works which brought him a certain notoriety: first with the Pierrot Players in the late 1960s, then with the Fires of London during the ’70s and early ’80s. The present double-bill of what remains his most (in)famous theatre-piece, with the one he’s stated will be his last such work, brought memories and anticipations in equal measure.

When it appeared in 1969, Eight Songs for a Mad King seemed the height of a peculiarly British type of theatrical expressionism – taking the factual knowledge of George III’s decline into madness as the starting-point for a fevered journey through a fractured psyché. (Not for nothing did Davies work extensively with Ken Russell during this period.) Three decades on, deeper understanding of what constitutes mental affliction, together with the specific instance of Alan Bennett’s powerful and often moving portrayal of such illness in “The Madness of King George”, have opened up a greater degree of emotion, even pathos, in Davies’s (and librettist Randolph Stow’s) conception.

It’s pathos that comes through strongly in the present production. Tim Carroll has made full use of the Lyric’s stage to depict the musicians encroaching on the King’s physical and psychological space to an almost claustrophobic degree. Kelvin Thomas, understandably, makes little attempt to emulate the four-octave vocal span of the work’s dedicatee, the tragically short-lived Roy Hart. Yet the gestural range and realism of his response was impressive – whether in his first appearance from under the stage, his entreaties to the flautist or more aggressive response to the violinist as the impossibility of meaningful communication becomes apparent, or his admission of madness and terrified departure to the bass drum’s implacable beat. Eight Songs has lost little of its impact over thirty years, but the nature of this impact has changed radically during that time.

Premiered less than two years ago, Mr Emmet Takes a Walk is Davies’s first large-scale foray into music-theatre (rather than opera) since the mid-1980s, and reflects his immersion in symphony- and concerto-writing over that period. Gone is the sense of gestures, theatrical and musical, reacting off one another spontaneously. The musical allusions Davies employs here are worked into a through-composed score, as coherent as any of his designated symphonies, whose expressive economy conceals a myriad of pointed connections between sound and vision.

The libretto – David Poutney’s wittiest and most thoughtful to date, and projected with absolute clarity – is as concrete or as open-ended as one chooses to take it. The story of a middling executive combating his mid-life crisis with chance encounters, restorative spiritual journeys and attempted business deals; the ultimate realisation of futility in all he does, and his consequent suicide on the rail track: or something more allegorical and profound? This is left to the audience, abetted here by a sympathetic account of the title-role from Richard Lloyd-Morgan, and a wonderfully detailed sequence of vignettes – from cabaret singer to spiritual earth-mother – from Nicole Tibbels. Jonathan Best was ominous in his appearances as the periodic timekeeper, underlining the pointlessness of Mr Emmet’s actions prior to taking that final walk. Poutney’s stylish and unfussy direction confirms that the most involving sex scenes are always the most implicit.

Etienne Siebens conducted ’Mr Emmet’ with clarity and purpose; in both works, the members of Psappha gave constant proof of why this group has become a mainstay on the contemporary-music scene. An absorbing evening, suggesting that music-theatre is the domain for which Davies may best be remembered.

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