Yesterday evening my friend, Laura, and I (it's her 40th tomorrow so she's had a week of culture), toddled off to see Promised End, the English Touring Opera's adaptation of Shakespeare's King Lear. It was performed in the Linbury studio, underneath the main action above, which was Rigoletto (just one cornetto!). The Linbury was a medium sized constructionist/minimalist studio, which is the opposite of what one would usually expect; not a hint of crimson velvet anywhere (not even wrapped and trailing around the necks of the average middle-aged chattering class audience). There were quite a few trendy youngsters too - one man, no older than mid-30s - was in a Prada'd tweed. Another woman seemed to want to make up for her butter-wouldn't-melt plain jane demeanour/visage by donning six inch high heels and a tight black dress with a zip running around it - a suggestion of subverting the opera with the sadomasochistic - actually, maybe not subverting, but conforming with the violence of Lear and the wretched Goneril (std anyone) and Regan.
The set was beautifully and simply designed, a Japanese screen at the back of the stage, behind which the orchestra sat, conducted by Ryan Wigglesworth, and another mobile one at the front, which focussed the action at various points of the performance. It was all with a touch of earthy pagan Scandinavia - indeed, one look at the programme was enough to see that some of the cast were Swedish. Cordelia was played by Lina Markeby – the 'good virtuous blonde' to the darker-haired/red-haired Goneril and Regan, played by Jacqueline Varsey and Julia Sporsen.
As soon as the orchestra began to play and the lights went down and the audience hushed itself, the cast came onto the black lacquered stage and, in a group, stared out at us, the audience. I immediately wanted to laugh but quickly caught a hold of myself. Obviously Promised End is not a full version of Lear – to do that for the opera, apparently, would have taken eight hours – being four in the theatre. Yet the composer, Alexander 'Sandy' Goehr, thanks to the collaboration with the late Sir Frank Kermode, arranged it into 24 preludes lasting just two hours – certainly a length of time to encourage opera newcomers.
The time whizzed by – the voices were majestic – the faces animated – the story, tragic, yet with Shakespeare's hint of black humour throughout. I have to say that the one person I found absolutely perfectly cast was Julia Sporsen as Regan. Her haughty demeanour and face so constantly portrayed spite that I couldn't take my eyes off her. At the interval my friend and I both admitted to wanting to giggle as soon as it started and had a good laugh about that, glad we have both contained ourselves. Famous last words. As the second act began, as soon as the cast returned to the stage, we fell into a fit of giggles that we both worked very hard to keep contained. At one point I thought I was going to have to lower myself off my seat, crawl across the narrow aisle and remove myself, but I think it felt worse to me than noticed by others. I hope. Laura too, was silently giggling so hard that her stomach began to creak under the pressure, which only prolonged the giggling agony. I ended up holding my breath and adopting the most earnest look I could command and focussed on Regan's spite-filled face and then I was lost again in the performance.
At the end a rather enthusiastic man behind us shouted 'BRAVO! BRAVO! YEAH!' and I wondered whether he was English. It was lovely to hear, though. I, along with everyone else, clapped so hard that I thought my arms were going to fall off in protest. But then the conductor, Ryan Wigglesworth came on (quite tasty looking if I may say so) and the applause went up a gear, followed by Alexander 'Sandy' Goehr, this dapper, distinguished man – 78 years old – and the applause went up several notches again. Goehr has one of those faces – smiling, appreciative eyes and needlessly modest. This morning I looked up a Guardian review on it based on rehearsals and the interview with Goehr, which made me like him even more. He served as professor of music at Cambridge for nearly 25 years, despite having no degree, and, he says, felt like an outsider. Then, at the age of 65, he was forced to take retirement (such a shame that such talented people who still have so much to give – the same happened to Eagleton whilst at Manchester), and he fell into a deep depression. The idea for Promised End, he says, came from a dream. And it was dreamlike. Go see it. But don't giggle.