Docu-Opera with music by Errollyn Wallen to a libretto by Bonnie Greer [world premiere performances]
Alison Buchanan; Omar Ebrahim; Bonnie Greer; Michael Henry; Mark le Brocq; Clare McCaldin; Richard Morris; Marie Vassiliou; Claire Wild; Nikolas Winters
John Lloyd Davies – Director, Lighting Design & Set Design
Anna Hourriere – Co-Set Design
Anna Hourriere – Costume Design
Mandy Demetriou – Movement Director
Reviewed by: Andrew Maisel
Reviewed: 26 November, 2011
Venue: Linbury Studio Theatre at Royal Opera House, London
In October 2009, the African-American playwright and commentator Bonnie Greer, a UK citizen since 1997, was invited to be a panellist on BBC TV’s Question Time. She was to appear alongside the leader of the far-right British National Party, Nick Griffin. His invitation sparked a furore amongst some sections of the public, the media and most of the Labour government who repeatedly asked the BBC to change its mind. They believed his appearance would raise the profile of the BNP to an unacceptable level and give the party the credibility it did not deserve.
In the end the programme went ahead. Greer was inspired to write about her experiences concerning Question Time but her and composer Errollyn Wallen’s “docu-opera”, as it’s called, deals only with her thoughts, reactions and that of the general public’s in the two weeks leading up to the programme, not QT itself. Director and co-designer John Lloyd Davies puts his stage in the centre of the Linbury Studio, audiences on both sides. The words surrounding the controversy are splattered around, the seats have YES, NO, MAYBE plastered on the underside.
Greer herself anchors the one-hour piece, seated at a desk throughout; she ponders the BBC ‘s request. “I said YES” she concludes. In one instance she recounts an inspirational call from her mother in Chicago as she is driven to the Question Time studios. The upshot of that is that she realises she must speak for herself and not any section of society.
The other nine members of the cast sing a number of unnamed roles representing all sections of multiracial Britain, expressing the polarised opinions that the programme provoked. Errollyn Wallen’s score is itself an eclectic mix of baroque, rock, pop, Latin and techno – most of it pastiche and none of it memorable.
Particularly unfortunate is the fact that most of the words are simply inaudible. Diction is generally poor and without surtitles most of the ‘mini arias’ fall flat. The refrain from the anti-fascist protestors outside Television Centre, “Who’s listening, no-one hears us” is clear enough. So is the line “The country’s baking in its own shit. I’m not part of it.” But it’s near-impossible to decipher what side of the fence the character is supposed to be on as you can’t understand what he’s singing.
Greer and Wallen do want to make it very clear that Britain is a country of immigrants and has been for hundreds of years. A Muslim woman recalls the dates throughout history when large numbers of immigrants have come to Britain – with the names of the ethnic groups flashed on a large screen: Hugenots, Jews, Celts – just in case we hadn’t got the message.
John Lloyd Davies keeps the pace up and the action never falters. In the midst of all this, conductor Gerry Cornelius and his ensemble of seven cope admirably with all the different genres demanded of them. The cast of ten are all committed but there’s precious little material here of any quality. With most of the hackneyed ideas used up pretty quickly the rest of the time passes very slowly.