The Grange Festival’s Michael Chance with the director Keith Warner pentameter that lends Shakespeare his signature heartbeat or pulse: think of it as music of a sort but without the notation. What about the women in a play that is very notably missing a queen? Warner has in Susan Bullock a powerhouse Goneril, the elder of Lear’s two envenomed daughters (Regan is the other) who exist at odds with the more charitably minded youngest child, Cordelia. ‘It’s terrifying,’ Bullock said at once of a project that at the same time sounds to this one-time Brünnhilde and Elektra like a date with destiny.
‘It’s not as if we’re going to be singing in Czech or trying to navigate difficult high notes. I think it will be fascinating to pick your own pace and your own pitch and not be governed by a conductor.’ Doesn’t she fear feeling exposed? ‘There are so many times in opera where I’ve thought, “If only this were slower or quicker,” and here we have all the options. There’s something liberating about stepping away from the music and knowing that what we do will never be the same twice.’
It’s worth pointing out that Warner’s modern-dress, visually stripped-back Lear won’t be devoid of music. The composer Nigel Osborne is devising a soundscape rooted in the human voice, with the exception of Begley’s street-musician-like Fool, who is to be a one-man band complete with cymbals and trumpet. Elsewhere, says Warner, ‘Nigel had this idea of using voices to create the storm, [with] the human voice as percussive sounds both pre-recorded and in the moment.’ That innovation, too, places direct emphasis on the vocal attributes of a cast whose prowess in that area is undeniable.
All that remains is to see how this commingling of talent gels in performance and whether Warner and co. may be on to something beyond just this particular play. (Bullock, for one, talks of how enticing it would be to play Sophocles’s Electra having tackled the fearsome Elektra of Strauss’s opera.) ‘No one here is saying they’re better than straight actors; it isn’t a competition,’ says Warner. ‘All the people we have are arriving with a certain caution.’ But if you don’t test yourself, you don’t grow, and— let’s face it—these various lockdowns have allowed plenty of time to learn the lines. ‘It’s basically all in my head now, whatever “memorized” means,’ says Tomlinson, clearly primed to make this long-aborning idea a reality. ‘This is a very scary prospect but it’s wonderful that it’s actually happening.’ The readiness, indeed, is all. The 2021 Grange Festival is due to open on June 11. See thegrangefestival.co.uk for details.
Opera, April 2021