Saturday, 17 May 2014

An-Ting Chang and Russell Bender's Classical Collision "Rite of Spring" versus "Romeo & Juliet" Exeter Barnfield Theatre Thursday 1 May 2014

Concert Theatre
Romantic Classical Music
collides with Commedia Dell'Arte
Igor Stravinsky: "The Rite of Spring"
William Shakespeare: "Romeo & Juliet"
Exeter Barnfield Theatre
Thursday 1 May

Alex Lehman (Friar Lawrence & Benvolio)
Nectarios Theodorou (Mercutio & Paris)
Gemma Greet (Stage Manager)
Belle Chen & An-Ting Chang (Piano)
Monica Lindeman (Tybalt, Nurse)
Ben Hadley (Romeo, Lord Capulet)
Kim Heron (Juliet, Lord Montague)
On the first beautiful spring day of May, a team of musicians and actors arrived at Exeter Barnfield Theatre to prepare for a performance of An-Ting Chang and Russell Bender's new production, combining and interweaving classical composition and live theatre.

An-Ting Chang, a well established classical pianist and dramatist, has been developing a new way to understand and enjoy theatre and music in combination. With Artistic Director Jude Christian, An-Ting has built a following in London with a series of productions called "Sonata Movements". Short plays and one poem are combined with live performance of classical sonatas.

For example, An-Ting combines Prokofiev's "Sonata No 3" with T S Eliots "Portrait of a Lady" (see video) and Caryl Churchill's "Abortive" with Schubert's "Sonata in D" (video). An-Ting not only accompanies the action on the piano, the two compositions 'collide' on stage.

In early versions of the her new creation, An-Ting plays solo piano with her back to the audience. To make the piano element more prominent, An-Ting now plays four-hand piano duets with various different partners, on a grand piano which can be moved around on castors to allow the audience to watch the musicians from different angles.

Actors double as stage hands
dismantling the piano frame
In Russell and An-Ting's new production, the piano is also slotted into a wooden frame which can support the weight of several actors. The stage performance is now an intimately integrated experience. Characters in the play interact with the piano and the two pianists, climbing onto the platform above the keys and watching the musicians, as the musicians play through their theatrical performance. Occasionally the actors play a few notes themselves.

The actors no longer speak. For a closer connection between music and drama, the troupe work in the style of mime of the sixteenth century 'Commedia Dell'Arte'. Striking and unsettling masks created by Trestle Theatre Company define each character with a fixed  and intense expression. Each actor's mouth is left exposed, and is used to add expression - both visually and with occasional screams, or excited laughter.

An-Ting calls a halt
for a few photos
For the current tour, Russell and An-Ting have brought together two works involving terror and sacrifice. On the piano An-Ting plays Igor Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring", the terrifying music to the ballet that shocked and confused audiences in Paris one hundred years ago. For the Barnfield Theatre performance, An-Ting was joined by Australian/ Taiwanese pianist Belle Chen. (At some of the other venues An-Ting's partner is Australian pianist Arabella Pare.)

Over and around the piano, the actors present Shakespeare's late sixteenth century tragedy "Romeo & Juliet". The equally shocking content of the play competes for attention with the music. As well as masks, the actors have eye-catching costumes created by Mila Sanders. With minimal props they enact love scenes, fight scenes and an elaborate marriage ceremony on top of the piano. As fast as the visual stimulus grabs the audience's attention, the haunting music of a very different sacrifice draws them back again.

Alex Lehman
(Friar Lawrence & Benvolio)
Nectarios Theodorou

(Mercutio & Paris)
Ben Hadley, as Romeo, elicits sympathy without recourse to facial expression or words. His mask constrains his features, but his movements convey emotion instead. He is always easy to recognise, by his unmistakeable shock of curly hair, which also identifies him when he reappears, unmasked, as his unwitting father-in-law Lord Capulet. Ben ably expresses Romeo's equivocation and uncertainty, belying the disarmingly quizzical expression of his mask.

Kim Heron, on the other hand, displays tenderness and vulnerability equally effectively through a similar mask. Despite her shocking appearance, the audience can't help identifying with Romeo's love for her.

Nectarios Theodorou's Mercutio is animated and outrageous, bursting into each scene with a visceral cry. Loyalty, confusion, bravery - all are succinctly portrayed through the terrifyingly fixed stare of his mask.

Occasionally the masked characters remove their masks - suggesting emotional exposure. Alex Lehman, in the impressive robes of Friar Lawrence, performs the ill-fated marriage unmasked.

Initially uncomfortable and difficult to comprehend. This new style of performance quickly asserts itself. The doubling of stimulus focusses the attention, snatching it from one experience to another. The ears and eyes vie for dominance as the performance unfolds.

One quickly loses track of both plots, and any attempts to reconstruct the action inevitably become confused. In an interview after the show An-Ting explained that the Stravinsky was unchanged, while the play had been adapted around it. During the performance, quite the opposite had appeared to be the case.

Although still in its formative stages, An-Ting's new form of musical theatre is already a very effective and affecting creation. Classical music and classical theatre do go together - and fuse to create a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Certainly, after a single dose of An-Ting's new concoction, the most passionate music or theatre in isolation can appear tame by comparison.

The tour continues until the end of June, coming to Bristol Bierkeller Theatre on Thursday 5 June.

To find out more about AT Concert Theatre, see the Concert Theatre Website.

An-Ting Chang
with Michael Knowles
organiser of a previous event
in Hampshire

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