Britten – The Canticles: Theatre Royal: Review

May 9, 2013


Neil Bartlett and Paule Constable’s staging of Britten’s Canticles is a beautiful, often sublime, experience in which the sacred and the earthly meet to powerful effect. Although most of the words are inaudible due to the operatic style of singing – my companion said he wasn’t sure he got one – this doesn’t actually mar one’s appreciation. On suggesting surtitles might have helped he said the music, the singing and the imagery were enough to carry the evening.

The first two were the most successful. Canticle I: My Beloved is Mine takes its lyrics from a homo-erotic 17th century poem. Ian Bostridge’s voice manages to convey both the tenderness and power of the song. The simple staging, a gay mixed-race couple in the ’40s having breakfast, is a successful counterpoint to the drama of the music.

Canticle II: Abraham and Isaac is one of the most moving pieces I’ve seen in the theatre. The music’s haunting repetitive minimalism – which seems to foreshadow the work of Brian Eno – the primal grief of the man dancing Abraham and the voices of Bostridge and Iestyn Davies together produce something transcendent.

Canticle III: Still Falls the Rain seems to be about Christ, War and England. It’s lovely, though you would need a greater knowledge of poetry to understand it. The same goes for the last two pieces which are based on T. S. Eliot poems (the final one, The Death of Saint Narcissus, Britten himself said he didn’t fully understand). But the Canticles are more about feelings, conveying a sense of the numinous, than mere intellectual comprehension.