Theatre of Sound – Judith’s Castle and Bluebeard’s Castle at Stone Nest in London’s West End

Electra Perivolaris
Tomorrow’s Wonder – A window into our lives [or Judith’s Castle]

Bluebeard’s Castle [orch. Stephen Higgins]

Judith’s Castle

Gweneth-Ann Rand (soprano) & Matthew Hargreaves (baritone)

Catherine Hare (flute), Marry Reid (harp), Paul Silverthorne (viola), Adrian Brendel (cello)
Stephen Higgins

Daisy Evans – Director


Bluebeard’s Castle

Judith – Susan Bullock
Bluebeard – Gerald Finely
Others – Siobhan Chacha, Lizzie Frain, Ruchika Jain, Eliza Beth Stevens & John Kamau

Members of the London Sinfonietta
Stephen Higgins

Adrian Linford – Design
Jake Wiltshire – Lighting
Max Pappenhiem – Sound
Evangeline Cullingworth – Assistant director
Daisy Evans – Director & English translation

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 6 November, 2021
Venue: Stone Nest, Shaftsbury Avenue, London

A new company in a new (or reclaimed venue) is something to shout about, and Stephen Higgins’s and Daisy Evans’s Theatre of Sound is making something of a splash with its reimagining of Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle, not only in a reduced orchestration of the original psychodrama, but also in the commissioning of a contemporary companion piece, exploring the realities of living with dementia.

For Theatre of Sound, Bartók’s operatic masterpiece can be understood as a depiction of Judith’s dementia.  Bluebeard – Darby to Judith’s Joan in this contemporary British setting – goes to collect Judith (you get the impression it’s a daily occurrence). She arrives as if it’s her first visit, her dementia robbing her of her memories.  This makes sense of her interrogation about the home (remember, an Englishman’s home is his castle…) and the incessant request to open all the doors (here a suitcase full of items – mainly clothes) that unleashes ever-more upsetting memories.  Three non-singing extras portray Judith’s earlier self: while courting; getting married; having children (two further extras); and on the death of a son.  Each time, present-day Judith swipes them away, bewildered or angrily.  Bluebeard’s memories of his ‘three wives’ – from dawn, noon and evening – are thus his own memories of his younger Judiths, leaving the midnight Judith the one consumed with dementia. 

Evans’s new production is brought magnificently to life by the first of two casts – Gerald Finley and Susan Bullock (alternating with Gweneth-Ann Rand and Michael Mayes). With exquisite attention to every heart-breaking and poignant detail, together they populate Adrian Linford’s slanting set in two parts depicting an ordinary house, which is lit – including on two levels above the stage – by a collection of house lamps (and, perhaps incongruously, a street lamp).  In the small space of the old Welsh Chapel (a mini-Union Chapel), every word of Evans’s English translation comes over bright and clear, with vocal detail as moving as the acting.  Higgins’s reduction of the score for clarinet, horn, violin, viola, cello and keyboard may lack the darkness of Bartók’s original, but it matches the re-evaluation of the piece, sometimes sounding like a nostalgic café orchestra.  The players are located behind one side of the audience, which is placed three sides of the acting area, with seating also above the orchestra on the first tier.

The companion piece is billed as Judith’s Castle, but is officially entitled Tomorrow’s Wonder – A window into our lives (and given a further performance on Saturday 13 November at 2 p.m.).  It is introduced not only by conductor and composer but by three guest speakers, including Julian West (head of the Royal Academy of Music’s Open Academy), who talked about his revelation in seeing how music can help dementia patients, and Francesco Aprile (Imperial College), who outlined some of the advances in protein research which is getting to the bottom of what dementia is and how it can be treated.  Actor Kevin Whately is the third guest, reading Sir Edward Dyer’s 16th-century poem My Mind to Me a Kingdom Is as a preface to the performance.  The poem is a recurrent refrain in Electra Perivolaris’s cantata, for soprano and baritone, which otherwise sets words by a couple who are living with dementia in Exmouth.

Separating the recurring Dyer refrain, sections encompass a walk along the seafront with the lady of the couple describing the sights for her sight-impaired husband and a reflection of her life of caring for others.  Scored for violin, viola, harp and flute – placed round the set, with the singers, Gweneth Ann Rand and Matthew Hargreaves, on the set – Perivolaris’s score is subtle and cajoling, easy on the ear with a comforting tonal palate that utilises repeated motifs to tenderly express support for the couple and their situation.  It is a fascinating upbeat to the Bartók, especially when Bluebeard’s Castle is so thought-provokingly redefined.

And a word about the venue. Stone Nest rescues the hidden gem on Shaftesbury Avenue (opposite the Palace Theatre) from its previous incarnation as a Walkabout pub, and offers central London a new venue for innovative, small-scale productions. ‘Bravi’ all round.

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