Theatre Royal Stratford East and English National Opera
Theatre Royal, Stratford East
Noye’s Fludde, a setting of one of the fifteenth-century Chester cycle of mystery plays, was intended for performance in church or large space and Britten specifically said it wasn’t for theatre performance, so how does it fare in this most recent revival that unites the forces of the Theatre Royal and ENO?
It is also a work that was written to involve the local community. Both orchestra and performers when it was first performed in the church at Orford were from local schools, some of the instrumentation (handbells, recorders, a passage played by striking cups strung on string) directly inspired by what he saw children playing.
Director Lyndsey Turner and the production team have certainly embraced the community aspect of the performance with an ark packed with children as animals, an orchestra of youngsters led by professionals and a group of local adults to lead the audience in learning the three hymns which they contribute to this dramatic music making.
The only roles sung by professional singers are Noah and his wife, with a splendid performance of warm-hearted Noah by rich-voiced Marcus Farnsworth and Louise Callinan as a forceful and sharp-tongued Mrs Noah. Actress Suzanne Bertish calmly controls from the heavens as God, wreaking destruction on an Earth full of folk that disappoint her.
Designer Soutra Gilmour has provided a setting like a bold drawing in black and white, costumes in grey tones and props cardboard cut outs. The ark when it is built fills the stage and since it has to support so many child-animals its solid scaffold is rather unimaginatively pushed on and these young performers handle their token tools awkwardly. The emphasis seems to be put on taking part rather than teaching performance skills and the singing of Noah’s children makes the rich medieval language unintelligible, though Mrs Noah’s gossips do a better job.
There is far too much reliance on the charm of seeing these young performers, though the musicians are raised on a scarcely lit platform above the stage so you may not realise they are not the ENO orchestra and you only glimpse things like the teacup chimes if you know what you are looking for.
More importantly, Britten was right: in this proscenium theatre (and that was the kind of theatre he meant), this production struggles to create the unity there should be with the stage stacked with performers confronting the audience.
The production eschews the obviously theatrical. Remembering Ceri Richards's lovely headdresses and masks from the first production, I found the animals drawings from Oliver Jeffers’s books worn on headbands to identify species rather disappointing, though they do ensure a child will be more easily recognised by friends and family and then the drawing not the child is visible as they tuck down behind the ark’s bulwarks.
The young performers dancing the solos for the Raven and the Dove sent out over the flood waters don’t look like trained dancers and Wayne McGregor avoids complex choreography for them, but if they were able to flutter through the audience rather than be largely on stage (the only place where those upstairs can see them) they could be more effective.
Yet, despite what sounds like so much against it, this production does enchant. There are moments, such as the rising registers as the birds and the mice approach the ark, that fill one with feeling, Mrs Noah’s stubbornness hits (literally) home, the storm at sea becomes overwhelming. There is so much imagination in the music and when the animals are processing or Marcus Farnsworth is at centre of things, the production becomes vibrant.
If you have never seen Noye’s Fludde performed, you’ll have a very special experience and the things that niggle me you won’t notice.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton