Betrayal: A Polyphonic Crime Drama | I Fagiolini

May 2015 | Village Underground

The queue starts outside the location; a dank, former victorian warehouse on a side-street away from the noise of the Hackney nightlife. With access permits in hand, the audience are eventually bustled through the closely gated ‘crime-scene’ led by surly officers giving out torches and rapping out access rules. The space is littered with junk and odd pieces of old furniture. It’s the kind of area a murder would take place in, or at least a place a body would be dumped. Chalk outlines decorate the concrete floor, exposed by the type of flood light you see on police-dramas, alongside boards with photos and post-it notes of details about victims or suspects. In the gloom, somewhere in the tightly gathered crowd, song rises through the dense space.

Betrayal is a dramatic interpretation using polyphonic song and dance, of the state of mind of Carlo Gesualdo, an experimental 16th century composer who challenged traditional musical rules and proposed more daring harmonic shifts, gestures and angst ridden texts in the pursuit of the “perfect expressive ensemble Madrigal”*. He is also notorious for beating women and murdering his cheating wife. Director John La Bouchardiére uses the context of Gesualdo’s life to inform the drama of the music. Research suggests Gesualdo was troubled by some violent trauma, and bore the traits of a potential psychopath (he knew his wife was having an affair and planned the very moment to kill- with certain over-zealousness her and her lover) The text, taken from various books of the Madrigali is filled with anguish, starting with expressions of love, betrayal, and a final reconciliation with God.

The piece is staged with six singers and six dancers who are subsequently murdered for having an affair. The Madrigal is the voice of the jealous cuckold and the silent lovers dance their affairs throughout the space. The audience are free to roam, viewing each story, which is framed, structured and executed as the rest, with constant polyphony being heard. Spatially the set-up is very nice, although the venue wasn’t acoustically ideal the ensemble perform the piece deftly.

The audience have torches to light up the performance in the surrounding darkness which provides multiple dimensions to the piece: Viewers are both audience and voyeur- stealing through the darkness to spy on scandals, the action becomes the imagination of the investigators piecing the events as it flows around them, audience are viewers and lighting-operators at once, the scenes are like Kantoresque memories of the environment, the blue torchlight creates both a ghostly atmosphere and something almost cinematic, the variety of murders, victims and tools become a fantasy in the mind of the killer, or even the troubled composer. The situation also helps drive the interaction, if you want to see the action you have to commit to it, you become part of the production.

The usual issues with immersive theatre occur, unfortunately. The bulk of the audience seemed to be classical music audiences not known for their willingness to get stuck in to proposed interactive situations, even though Betrayal was far from demanding. Instead of engaging with the piece many loitered around the edges almost like wall-flowers waiting for activity to come to them. However, the atmosphere definitely improved around those who were game. A majority of the torches were in pockets or hilariously lighting up shoes or jackets from the inside, some were then complaining because it was too dark. One viewer was overheard saying they didn’t want to waste the battery before turning the torch off; as if saving the battery was better than wasting the torch. Another classic occurrence in these environments is the phobia of sharing light/space with a performer. In one corner that was a huge semi-circle where everyone was afraid to make the most of the area so the relationship with the performer was less than intimate, the singer was trying very hard to connect with those around her, but when she carved through the space, a catwalk appeared and never went away and audience had caged themselves into clumps.

Most tragically, a lot of the music audience seemed totally unengaged with the movement of the piece (try searching for reviews by broadsheet newspapers,) viewing the dancers with underserved skepticism or disinterest although dance audiences seemed more open to the music side. Actually, all the performers did a good job of the work, dancers having to learn the scores of notoriously unusual harmonies and the singers were also choreographed, somehow interacting with trained dancers while maintaining the integrity of the ensemble which deserves extra admiration.

Like most interactive performances, the biggest issues seemed to stem from the unreliability of the audience in their willingness to share the occasion, rather than the concept of the piece itself. Other venues billed for the show include an low-ceilinged club venue and a carpark, it would be interesting to see how it works with new audiences in new environments. Although I’m not a musically educated theatre viewer, it is clear that the composition was treated with respect and that the dreamlike expression of the dance worked well in collaboration. I Fagiolini keep finding a way to engage with new and old audiences with collaborations in creative spaces. It may need a bit of tidying or altering on the audience’s behalf but ultimately Betrayal is a positive effort.

*Quotation from Robert Hollingworth, music director of I Fagiolini

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