Writer: Mark Ravenhill
Composer: Conor Mitchell
Director: Conor Mitchell
Producer: The Belfast Ensemble
On a chilly, dank Sunday evening, the Lyric Theatre bar is ablaze with crimson fairy lights, signalling a late night menu of queer cabaret songs by two of the 20th century’s artistic giants. Politically and privately, composer Benjamin Britten and poet WH Auden were like chalk and cheese but their quartet of Cabaret Songs, written for the English singer Hedli Anderson, wife of the Belfast poet Louis MacNeice, perfectly captured the decadence and darkness of turbulent 1930s Europe. In 2013, Northern Ireland composer Conor Mitchell and the distinguished UK playwright Mark Ravenhill were commissioned by Aldeburgh Music to extend the collection in commemoration of Britten’s centenary. It is worth noting, that this is the kind of heady company that Lurgan-born composer/musician Mitchell regularly keeps.
But before revelling in this delicious dessert, a spectacular main course is on offer on the Lyric’s Danske Bank main stage. Mitchell and Ravenhill’s Ten Plagues, commissioned in 2011 by the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh, is an award-winning song cycle, which draws its inspiration from the great classical cycles by Schubert and Schumann as well as from the subversive European torch song tradition. The result is sublime and highly emotional. Ravenhill is a writer of immense, affecting power. His vivid word pictures cut to the quick – the child at the graveyard gates, the heaps of rotting bodies, the tolling of the death bell, the pit of corpses, the stench of fever and the heartbreaking line, “I wanted to kiss you but you stopped me.”
Without making direct reference to AIDS, his masterful drawing together of the plagues of Egypt and the Great Plague of London in 1665 finds chilling modern day resonances in the devastating 20th century epidemic, cruelly labelled in the tabloid media as ’the gay plague’ and achingly captured in this single simple lyric.
At the piano, Mitchell is the alchemist of the piece, his intense, charismatic presence underpinning an outstanding solo vocal perforrnance by cabaret artist Matthew Cavan, an admirably worthy successor to Mark Almond, for whom the original piece was written.
Lean, lanky and wan-faced, Cavan cuts a solitary figure, at once arch and troubled, permanently absorbed into and dehumanised by Gavin Peden’s flickering video backdrop. His close fitting blue lounge suit is accessorised by a scarlet silk tie, a matching gash of lipstick and a pair of sequinned stiletto sling-backs. But beneath the camp glitter he carries on his slim shoulders the guilty burden of survival, as he navigates alone a parched wasteland beset by disease and pestilence. The setting may be 17th century England but this poignant, expressive Everyman conveys mass suffering past and present, allowing just one brief humorous interlude set off by a curly blonde wig.
Through his new company The Belfast Ensemble, Mitchell makes extremely high musical demands of his carefully chosen collaborators. Routinely, they rise to the challenge. Here Cavan responds with thrilling vocals and a compelling characterisation, one moment frail and plaintive, the next brimming with barely contained outrage and anger. This outstanding piece of music theatre demands much wider international attention than a one-night festival gig.