Wednesday, 7 November 2007

Stick it up your fundamentalism

Never mind counting sheep: Peter Grimes is a much better aid to sleep. Count all those missed beats jumping over the barline.

As I was doing this last night, it struck me how much the plot is Old Testament versus New. Bob Boles is a real Old fundamentalist, banging on about revenge; Ellen Orford is New Testament, talking forgiveness. She is educated (a teacher), reasonable, compassionate.

But, as we know, it's Boles, preaching fire and brimstone from his soapbox outside after the regular Sunday service, who fires up the crowd. They hound Grimes to suicide, and even Balstrode - hitherto a mediating, understanding and wise voice - turns against him. In that chilling section of spoken dialogue near the end, it is he who tells Grimes to sail out and sink his boat. The Old Testament world of vengeance, ignorance and mob rule wins out.

The parallels with today's fears of fundamentalism are pretty clear: it doesn't take a genius to equate Boles with the radical imam preaching to the disaffected young men outside the mosque.

But that, to me, raises a point about staging. If you spot such a parallel, do you then stampede into an updated production, moving The Borough to modern-day Iran or Afghanistan, making the church a mosque, Sunday Friday, and switching all Christian references to Islamic ones?

Well, maybe someone might; they've done worse, as anyone at the recent ENO Poppea, set in an aquarium or something, can tell you. But such updating sounds pointless to me, and not only because the clammy, foggy claustrophobia of Britten's fabulous music perfectly describes Suffolk but is less evocative of palm trees and deserts. Because to me, the whole point is that I, in the audience, make those connections for myself. Someone else might be put in mind of fundamentalist Christian communities in neo-con midwest US; others might make parallels with minority persecution on different grounds.

(Which makes me think of a mucky joke whose tag line answers the question 'on what grounds' with 'Hampstead Heath and Clapham Common, your honour', but the margin is not big enough to contain it here.)

Sadly, there are any number of types of witch-hunt that the Grimes putsch might suggest. But that, I'll say again, is why opera can be so powerful. To me the best option is usually to stick to the original staging and time. Then everyone can make the internal connections for themselves, without some clever director forcing us to see it their way. Boles is a hypocritic fundamentalist, a demagogue who takes the mob that follow him like sheep. That's not about religion, that's about human society and how easily it can be derailed. it's not a specific: it's a universal.

Good, that's sorted that one out. Be suspicious of updated operas. Now, time to get some sleep. Back to counting those sheep...

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