With Gaddafi: A Living Myth, English National Opera has succeeded in reaching a new audience. Whatever its shortcomings as a work of art, and some people are going to hate this production, Gaddafi: A Living Myth is a breath of fresh air at the London Coliseum. Whether it’s an opera, a musical or something else entirely, this new show raises questions that are much more important about the world we live in.
The ENO has gone all political. Two months ago on the stage of the Coliseum we saw Richard Nixon and Mao Tse Tung in Nixon in China. Now we have impersonations of Colonel Gaddafi, Ronald Reagan and a comical portrayal of Tony Blair (hardly a massive leap for most people to make).
As with the John Adams work, this is not a naturalistic portrayal of figures from recent political history. The work written by Shan Khan and with music by Asian Dub Foundation and Diaspora is unlike anything else you will have seen on this stage.
With a pounding beat that hardly lets up all evening, Gaddafi mixes the orchestra of the ENO (minus woodwind) with the members of ADF and a handful of Middle Eastern musicians. It’s highly amplified and uses taped loops, hip hop and drum n’ bass. For opera audiences still reeling from the shock of the recent introduction of surtitles, it’s all very new. Not only do they have to deal with being able to understand what they’re seeing in conventional opera now but they are being encouraged to step outside their usual terms of reference.
Not that the first night audience saw many of the opera regulars. There was an eclectic mix, many of whom I suspect hadn’t stepped through these doors of high culture before.
While the Western politicians are rather ridiculed with almost Spitting Image impersonations, the “hero” of the piece is portrayed in a way that he’s not usually seen in the West, even in these days of thawed relations. There’s Gaddafi as a loving family man, a man who meditates, a peaceful revolutionary, a politician who is prepared to resign out of disgust with the corruption in his own government. How seriously we are supposed to take this romanticised version of the man I’m not sure. We also see Gaddafi the tyrant, who liquidates his dissident opponents, is implicated in terrorist acts and opportunistically gives the West what it wants (a show trial of the Lockerbie suspects). Then there’s “Gaddafi Superstar”, the egotist revelling in the cult of personality. Finally we see a white silhouette, inviting us to fill in the blanks ourselves, Gaddafi the Enigma.
What all this does is ask us to put aside the prejudices of decades of misinformation and propaganda and see personalities and events from a different viewpoint. That’s badly needed and very timely in these days of fragile world relations. If we’re to avoid out and out hostility, we’re going to need to step into other people’s shoes and try and understand them on their own terms.
Gaddafi: A Living Myth isn’t a tightly-constructed piece of play-making. It uses the device of a news reporter commentating on events to help fill some of the gaps as the action jumps around the decades – 1986 to 1969, back to Gaddafi’s bunker during the US air raids, then 1970. This is a series of set-pieces showing aspects of the man rather than a coherent narrative. It doesn’t succeed in steering clear of cliché at times, with the simplistic observation that the West’s only interest in the Middle East is its oil. If it offends sophisticated artistic, as well as some political, sensibilities with its naivety, that’s no bad thing and probably what its creators intended.
The production is often imaginative, which is to be expected from director David Freeman, who has a history of exciting opera work and has been missing from the London scene for far too long. The use of projections and graphics with stage designs by Es Devlin and Chloe Lamford is effective.
There are some problems with amplification levels, meaning the words are often difficult to follow (there are no surtitles this time). Not that the text, spoken not sung, is unmissable. Much of it is in rhyming couplets which sounds dangerously like doggerel at times.
There’s a quite charismatic performance of the Libyan leader from Ramon Tikaram, who struts about the stage like a cross between Henry V and Richard III, both hero and monster. There is an earnestness about some of the supporting performances at times that is close to laughable but also some well-timed humour (“Every Mad Dog has its day”).
Gaddafi plays for just five more performances and, wherever you’re coming from, I would urge you to see it for yourself. It’s a meeting of different cultures, artistic and social, and there’s not enough of that in the world today.