Negotiating the labyrinthine roadwork-infested roundabout at Elephant and Castle to arrive at the draughty and chaotically organised Coronet Theatre was perhaps an appropriate prelude to attendance at the UK première of Michel van der Aa’s multi-media work The Book of Disquiet, and, alas, the evening continued to deliver not only disquiet but disbelief and disappointment in equal measure.
The Book of Disquiet is inspired by the works of the Portuguese 20th-century author Fernando Pessoa, and it explores – through live readings on stage, a live orchestra, projected film and recorded soundtrack – the complex and fragmented multiple personalities that Pessoa invented for Bernardo Soares, a quasi-autobiographical character. In this production Samuel West provided readings (in English) of Soares’ musings, and these were mixed with projections onto large circular screens of film, shot in a sunny Portugal, of different aspects of Soares – the lover obsessed with writing and paper boats, Ophelia his beloved, a street-sweeper, a retired colonel, a bookkeeper. Underscoring this were recordings of snatches of music, as well as sounds from the film, and the occasional fragment of song from Ana Moura, the Fado singer taking the role of Ophelia. This was augmented by a soundtrack played by the London Sinfonietta, consisting mostly of the parallel movement of chords or melodies in clashing keys – symbolic, presumably, of Soares’ personalities working in disharmony.
As always, The London Sinfonietta played excellently under the baton of Joana Carneiro (this is, after all, very much their territory); Samuel West was his usual professional self; but they all struggled to make sense of a deeply flawed piece, and it was a dull 75 minutes.
The orchestral music was unrelenting and annoying – the only surcease being the occasional moment when Ana Moura’s recorded song managed to anneal the jarring notes into a brief snatch of blue-note-accented-Fado (making a depressingly obvious statement about Soares’ love helping to bring his personalities into harmony).
Occasionally there was entertainment – such as the percussionist beating out ostinato rhythms on one of the huge metal circles to accompany a film of matchsticks being thrown into water. The films were well shot and pleasant: pictures of everyday scenes on listlessly hot Portuguese afternoons (including the stately pace of a bull through a field) did much to warm an audience in a chilly old theatre on a February evening.
Samuel West’s reading of Pessoa’s works was faultless, and that on its own would have been interesting (lines such as ‘nostalgia never hurts as much as it does for things that never existed’ ring true, after all). But the whole production really did feel like a touch of The Emperor’s New Clothes.
This kind of schrecklich music-drama is nothing new. Weill and Brecht managed the concept of uneasy cabaret so much better, and Peter Maxwell Davies’ challenging 1960s and 1970s works (such as Eight Songs for a Mad King and Miss Donnithorne’s Maggot) achieved a more profound effect; all that really differed in the presentation was the ability to incorporate more technology. And here again, it is worth looking at the world of popular music, which has been melding sound and vision since Queen’s groundbreaking video for Bohemian Rhapsody back in 1975. The complementarity between music and image is managed on a day-to-day basis in pop and rock; indeed, no track is released without its slickly produced, occasionally mystifying video, and no large festival set is complete without the usual complement of lasers and massive LED displays – with which a few obvious musical tropes and some film clips in a slightly off-beat London venue could never compete.