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How do you make an opera with 180 kids?
This week: Noah's Flood at Manchester International Festival, a 7m Earth in Durham Cathedral, Liverpool Theatre Festival returns, Julian Clary as Herod
CONVERSATIONS with Slung Low’s artistic director Alan Lane are an emotional rollercoaster. Just as you are filled with excitement at his plans for a near-impossible piece of theatre, he hits you with an observation about society that blasts you out of your comfort zone, then - another conversational hand-break turn - and you’re blown away by his optimism.
Right now he is describing how the Leeds-based theatre company is managing to put on a community opera featuring an orchestra and 180 kids dressed as animals and birds - and tour it to Manchester International Festival. Benjamin Britten’s Noah’s Flood was first performed in 1957, based on the medieval Chester Mystery Play of the Old Testament tale. The score is being played by musicians from Manchester Collective, who suggested the production to Lane after touring to Slung Low’s warehouse space in Holbeck, in inner Leeds.
‘You could have a young man called Mohammed playing a blackbird and we’ve made him a costume and he’s gone’
The young performers are pupils of Ingram Road Primary School, Slung Low’s neighbours, and Lane is excited about showing them their costumes. But then - boom! - he drops in something startling.
‘Because this is an area in which the government puts asylum seekers and moves them on so readily, the children that we measured three months ago for costumes have now been moved on and replaced by others,’ says Lane.
‘So you could have a young man called Mohammed playing a blackbird and we’ve made him a costume and he’s gone.
‘Obviously in any school there’s churn and change but when you look at it on a spreadsheet of names you realise how much there is. It’s really sad. You realise the systems we have in place are designed entirely to keep people in a certain state of precariousness. What we’re finding really hard is how to compensate for the genuinely cruel systems that are dominating this community.’
I am still contemplating the harshness of a system that doesn’t even allow a child to stay in one place long enough to perform in a play, when Lane’s voice lifts in enthusiasm. There are Ingram Road pupils in the Warehouse at the moment, he says. They’re watching a dancer, their faces glowing in appreciation.
‘We’re really lucky that Ingram Road Primary School is the best primary school in the world. The head teacher is absolutely astounding and when you go to her and say “I want to do an opera and I want to take it to Manchester” she goes “great!”,’ says Lane.
‘The kids get singing lessons every week from this brilliant pair of teachers. So it’s not just they’re in a show, they turn up, they put on a costume. They’re actually leaving this with a completely different relationship to music. And that’s really exciting.’
Slung Low is adept at balancing high quality productions with a profound sense of place. In 2010, it created Anthology - seven different stories performed on seven different routes through the streets of Liverpool to mark the rebuilding of the Everyman Theatre. In 2013, it transported audiences to World War I, ushering 300 people a night around York to discover the stories of chocolate workers. For Hull’s City of Culture in 2017, Slung Low staged a four-part Biblical epic of a show on the waters of a disused dock.
But the organisation’s connection to community runs even deeper than creating site-specific works. When arts organisations shut down during the pandemic, it reinvented itself as a non-means tested, self-referral food bank, delivering some 15,000 parcels to vulnerable people unable to leave their homes. (For more on this, read Lane’s ‘pandemic memoir’ The Club of the Edge of Town. But set aside a box of tissues and a chunk of time - I read it in one sitting.)
‘We are in a community of great displacement’
At the time, the theatre company was running the oldest working men’s club in Britain, The Holbeck, saving it from closure. But handing it back to its members and moving into a 50ft-long ‘beautiful and ramshackle’ warehouse, with a glass ceiling, has enabled Slung Low to create even more ambitious work.
‘Our job is to try and make a thing that seems impossible look, if not easy, then at least achievable,’ says Lane. ‘We’ve built cities on water and sunk them. This is just another logistical enquiry - how do you make an opera with 180 kids?’
Britten’s one-act opera opens with the Voice of God (played by poet Lemn Sissay) announcing the forthcoming flood that will rid the world of sin and warning Noah to build an arc. Certain passages are sung by the audience in ‘a moment of incredible humanity where everyone sings together’.
Ninety different animals feature in Slung Low’s production, from blackbirds and horses to unicorns and phoenixes, and some new creatures invented by the children taking part.
The young performers are from all the major religions, Lane says, yet there is something about Britten’s work that connects everyone. And in some ways, the subject matter resonates even more powerfully today.
‘We’re making a show about people trying to escape a flood not only at a time of environmental crisis but with children some of whom arrived in this country in a small dinghy,’ he says.
‘We are in a community of great displacement. Of course it’s a Biblical story about God wreaking revenge but it’s also a story about people clinging together during moments of terror.’
Noah’s Flood is at The Warehouse in Holbeck, Leeds, tonight and at Depot Mayfield, Manchester, on Sunday. Both shows are sold out but you can find out more about Slung Low’s work here and Manchester International Festival here.
This week we’re also buzzing about…
GAIA: Luke Jerram’s 7m-diameter Earth artwork will be suspended in Durham Cathedral’s Nave from Monday, where it will slowly turn as if floating in mid-air. I stood under this work when it visited Liverpool Cathedral in 2019 and it was genuinely breath-taking, reminding us of the extraordinary beauty of the planet we live on and often take for granted. Gaia will be in Durham until September 10. Entry is free. More details here.
Liverpool Theatre Festival: A stalwart in the city’s arts calendar since it was launched in autumn 2020 to give much-needed work to writers and actors during the pandemic, festival returns from July 20 with 18 shows across 11 days. The wide-ranging programme includes everything from The Tempest to drag star Dame Fanny. Full listings here.
Julian Clary as Herod: Jesus Christ Superstar is touring to heaps of Northern venues over the next year and Clary is booked in for the launch shows in Manchester and Liverpool. He describes his take on the character as ‘Putin meets Cleopatra with a hint of Biggins’. Even as a big fan of the 70s JSC sound - my charity shop LP of the original 1972 London cast is spinning as I type this - that makes me want to book tickets. Full tour details here.
A few people have asked me this week what it’s like to write Stored Honey and I’ve described it as like ‘coming home’. After a couple of years’ break from writing regularly about the arts, it is a genuine pleasure to be speaking to people creating incredible things and sharing them with you - so thank you for reading and subscribing. If you haven’t already and want to, please click the button below.
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Have a great week,