Friday, 21 February 2014

Words and Music

From the global reach of livestream theatre to two experiences that were altogether more intimate:


The Hope Theatre in Islington is a tiny space above the Hope and Anchor pub.  In the evening it puts on short runs of new and experimental plays. But Thursday afternoons are reserved for ‘rehearsed readings’ of plays by new writers – tryouts for new works that may go on to be produced elsewhere, fully acted out but with the actors still working from scripts.

I was there to see a two-act play called Voltemand and Cornelius are Joyfully Returned.  Like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, the title refers to two minor characters from Hamlet, and like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the play revolves around two hapless characters lost in a world that appears to baffle them. 

Actor Paul Vates, the author of the play, has recreated some of the rapid fire dialogue, the verbal misunderstandings, the stupidity masking as madness (or madness masking as stupidity), of Stoppard’s original. But this time, the world in which the characters are lost is not Hamlet’s, but the German trenches in the midst of the First World War.  And the question around which the play revolves is whether Voltemand and Cornelius are really mad or whether they are faking it to escape the lunacy of the trenches.  As for Yossarian in Catch 22, proof of insanity is tantalisingly elusive. As one character says: “Every so often I have a burst of lucidity and [the doctor] tears the papers up again.”

It was a clever move for Vates to set this in the German trenches rather than the British.  It helps to shake the audience out of the ‘seen it all’ before mindset. This is not Blackadder or Oh What a Lovely War, but new territory.

The three young actors playing the lead roles were highly impressive.  They managed to convey a depth of emotion even while juggling with the yellow pages of the scripts. In fact, I quickly forgot the scripts were there at all (even when one of them was thrust temporarily into my lap and then as abruptly snatched away). If anything, the emotion was intensified by being in such a small space, with the audience literally on top of the action.

I’d love to see the play given a wider audience. With the various commemorations of the First World War that will take place over the next four years, the time is ripe for it to be picked up and given a full production.


One week later, I was in Ray’s Jazz Cafe at Foyles Bookshop in London to hear the music of Newanderthal.

The name derives, as frontman Ansuman Biswas explains, from the fact that Neanderthals discovered language and fire, while our ancestors –  homo sapiens, ‘the clever ones’ – invented weapons.  ‘I like to think the Neanderthals sat round the campfire, sharing songs. Hence we are the Newanderthals.’
They describe their music as as ‘a potent blend of esraj-accompanied Ethiopian and Bengali song forms, with mbira patterns derived from Steve Reich and jazz-infused bass riffs.’

The esraj is an Indian stringed instrument a bit like a mandolin which is held upright on the knees and played with a bow. The extraordinary-looking array mbira, played by Tom Green, is a modern adaptation of the African thumb piano.  In place of a long row of piano keys, it has parallel rows of metal tines that when pressed and released produce a sound like a harp, but more precussive. Then there is something that looks like a kettle barbecue but which, in the hands of Biswas, makes a sound between a marimba and a steel band, while Mal Darwen provides rhythm with an acoustic guitar and an electric double bass.

And through this blend of sounds, like a gold thread through a piece of shot silk, weaves the voice of Ethiopian singer, Haymanot Tesfa. Her range is extraordinary – at times deep and powerful, underpinning the rest of the music, and at times dancing across the top of it.

Cafe gigs are notoriously difficult. Often you have to compete, not just with the espresso machines, but with an audience that, instead of falling quiet, talks louder in order to hear themselves over the music. Not this time. Tesfa’s voice wraps itself around table after table, drawing them into her spell. People close their eyes, the better to listen and pick out the different strands of the music.

I thought perhaps the group was creating arrangements of traditional Ethiopian folk songs.  But as Tom Green explains afterwards, the process is somewhat more organic than that. Using patterns from Indian and Ethiopian music, the three instrumentalists improvise a sound that blends their different instruments, while Tesfa finds words and melody to harmonise.

The result is unlike anything you are likely to have heard before. You can get a flavour of it from this extract on Soundcloud:  But if you get the chance to hear them perform live, then grab the opportunity. You won’t regret it!