Review: IN MAY
Monday 17 March 2014
Letters from a dying man to his father... On paper, it seemed as if this one-off performance would, like Hate Radio - the other weekend event in the Arches Behaviour season - be anything but an easy listen. An hour or so after the opening shimmer of lyrical strings from the Ligeti Quartet (with Samuel Rice), however, and In May had proved not just tender on the ear but more of an uplifting love letter to life than a grim farewell epistle.
Neil Hannon - yes, the same man behind pop group Divine Comedy - has composed evocatively nuanced music that reads between the lines of Frank Buecheler's imagined (and one-sided) correspondence in which stoic emphasis is on the factual and the avoidance of self-pity, even when cherished childhood memories crowd in. We know about this because, still in her mourning black, Anna (Leentje Van de Cruys) musingly sings the letters aloud.
Here are the excluding commands - to his lover Anna, and his father - to stay away. And it is this desire to hide away, as if in a complex denial of both death and life, that Hannon's score for piano and string quintet so astutely gives the lie to, in its tapestry of moods. For while some passages are meditative or wistful, others are gloriously energised with the joy of being alive to nature, the seasons and music itself.
These emotional shifts are echoed in the video projections that fill the empty frames that hang behind the minimal set: music staves fill with notes that morph into merry birds as the days turn from the autumn of diagnosis through a winter of uncertainties to the exuberant, ecstatic vitality of spring that lends such poignancy to death In May.
Sick! Festival: IN MAY
The Old Market, Hove, March 19
On paper, a 70-minute show tracing the last months of a man dying of terminal cancer through a series of letters to his father doesn’t sound like a must-see. But on stage it became a celebration of the beauty of life.
Leentje Van de Cruys played the writer’s partner, Anna, reading the collection of letters for the first time. She sang and spoke the words with a voice cracking with emotion, while delivering a naturalistic physical performance, encompassing frustration, loneliness and joy on the minimal set. As she admitted in the post-show discussion, this prism was essential to prevent In May becoming mawkish – her presence added a sense of distance which would have been unachievable if it were the son or father doing the readings on stage.
Frank Alva Buecheler’s script contained moments of almost unbearable poignancy as the unnamed letter-writer came to terms with his impending death, but was completely devoid of self-pity. It delighted in simple cliches of sunsets, birds singing and flowers blooming as spring arrived, while weaving in the reality of clinics and check-ups with Dr Eisenstein. Backed by the swell of Neil Hannon’s romantic music and Simon Wainwright’s carefully chosen projections, it was an uplifting experience, expertly pared back by director Matt Fenton to ensure space for the audience to digest the story.
(c) Wendy Thomson 2014
19th March The Old Market Brighton
Enthralling pop chamber music theatre from playwright Frank Alva Buecheler and composer Neil Hannon.
'In May' is a play in the form of letters (emails) written by a dying son to his father, which are sung. It does not neatly fit into any genre although it made me think of opera. But first my written confession - I drove to Brighton from Reading without a press ticket on quite short notice, because I had heard of this production's first performance in Lancaster, and as a fan of Neil Hannon's music (in all forms from The Divine Comedy to cricket pop) and a 'fan' of theatre I thought these must add up to something great - but what is the missing element? - for me, as it has been from the start of Female Arts, it is one of gender, where are the women in this production?
'In May' was conceived as a dying male protagonist singing his emails to his father and this vision changed in the creative process to being a show where his lover Anna, finds the correspondence after his death and she sings. Leentje Van de Cruys plays Anna, the bereaved lover who discovers the events of his final months at the same time as the audience. There was power in this interpretation, the dying son and his distant father were more present in their absence.
Leentje Van de Cruys has a beautiful voice, which is touching and clear and was directed by Matt Fenton so that her performance was not presenting the songs as pieces of music in themselves but as someone reading these letters (who happens to be singing them). It was difficult as an audience to know what convention to follow, do we applaud after every song? (because they are touching, sublime pieces of Neil Hannon's finest composition perfectly executed by the The Ligeti Quartet) and that's what audiences do at a concert, or do we respect the fourth wall and wait until the end? Mostly we waited until the end. But each of the twenty four musical episodes could have been applauded in their own right. Will be interesting to see how future audiences react.
It would be tempting but wrong to talk too much about the music, so I'll stop (although if there is an album released, Divine Comedy fans - you should get it). Because what the 'In May' team created has many facets so I want to talk about the other parts.
This show would not exist without the writer - Frank Alva Buecheler constructed a play based on letters, the contents of which are quite short and superficially uncomplicated but dealing with an intense, taboo subject matter, how someone dying from a terminal illness wants to live out the remainder of their life. You realise it's very clever what has been removed and what has been kept in. The themes of the letters work with the music to create an 'album' and the words are not lyrical in that they are unrhyming but they are like songs in the images and thoughts which repeat. These images are visualised in projections by Simon Wainwright (imitating the dog) on rectangular white screens of varying sizes which are suspended from the ceiling. The letters begin in November and finish in May and the seasons, weather and nature keep pace with the narrative, a pathetic fallacy when the walls weep rain - or maybe it's just raining. What's rather lovely about 'In May' is that enough is left unsaid for the events and characters to be open to interpretation.
The set otherwise consists of a table and chair, a piano played by Fredrik Holm which is part of the chamber orchestra but sometimes leaned on by Anna, an armchair in which she rests and removes her shoes and the screens which sometimes show the interior of the apartment - when Anna's shadow is cast on the projections it seems that she is there, ethereally. In terms of costume Anna is dressed in mourning black, a plain outfit except for an exquisite skirt. Perhaps she has just attended his funeral? We don't even know his name.
There are so many questions left unanswered, both 'In May' and in life.
The Old Market Brighton
19th March 2014
Reviewed by Beccy Smith
The story starts off with a casually-delivered bombshell. A simply-dressed young woman takes centre stage, reading from a sheaf of papers on a downstage table. ‘That’s final – it is inoperable,’ she reads. Cancer then, and terminal, in the opening lines, or rather bars, for this story is to be sung, supported by a chamber string orchestra (the Ligeti Quartet, with piano) to a score written by the Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon. As an audience member it’s a daunting opener, but the company, led by Nuffield Theatre Lancaster’s director Matt Fenton have worked to extract every drop of beauty from the premise in their staging.
Beucheler’s script provides the underpinning to this moving and humane approach. It progresses through a series of letters covering the span between this terrible diagnosis and the protagonist’s inexorable decline as the year turns from winter towards early summer. The letters are written from dying son to distant father, whose arrival is held at bay by his son’s wishes that he not visit. The writer places moments of transcendence amongst the identifiable realities of paving stones, answer phones and familial tensions. The son is a musician and the relationship to music, to his piano, sets up a relationship with the transcendent as well as fully embedding the musical form within the narrative. Further, the sung form (I’m reticent to use the word opera because of its associations with a certain quality of voice not in evidence here) creates an aesthetic distance to the material and this is amplified by the decision to cast the central role who signs off each letter sung as ‘Your Son’. These distancing effects make it easier to more readily accept the beauty on offer on stage without worrying about in any sense ‘enjoying’ such a painful story.
Hannon’s rich song cycle, including some stunning instrumental interludes, provides a ravishing current for us to ride. The unusual cadences he often works with, immediately identifiable to fans of his work, develop a lush strangeness diverting the classical forms and instrumentation used. The staging, by Imitating the Dog, is a fragmented mosaic of screens across which dates and images – sometimes highly specific, often metaphorical and abstract – play with a dream-like language of metaphor and movement. Birds scatter, raindrops fall; french windows appear and disappear. Always there are blank spaces and darkness amongst the light and the threat of complete disintegration: it’s a terrific visual metaphor. The visual and literary presence of the changing seasons provides a suitably epic backdrop to the tale.
There were lapses in this wash of style and emotion: I occasionally felt frustrated by the solo actor’s inability to reach all the notes required of her by the score and the video software seemed to be straining at times to deliver the design. But it’s early days in the production’s life and this is a powerful, meaningful performance which succeeds in its moving exploration of the most difficult of subjects, realising the vitality of immediate human experience through its heavily aesthetic lens.
'.....lovely, really lovely.....' STUART MACONIE BBC RADIO 6 MUSIC
Audience Feedback Lancaster 2013
This is definitely theatre at its most moving.
A beautiful gift to music theatre.
Uses music theatre to its full potential.
Lovely interplay between the visuals, the music and the performer.
All the elements supported each other.
It was pitch perfect on every level.
The piece feels so complete, incredibly satisfying.
A very natural translation.
An honest and respectful text.
Full of anger and euphoria but never the easy answer or the easy emotion.
Everyone can make a personal connection to this show.
A play that gives a truth and a simple reality to life. I will never forget it, it will go away with me. Thank you for this evening.