Britten’s War Requiem at the London Coliseum
Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem is one of the musical masterpieces of the 20th century. First performed in the bombed-out ruins of Coventry Cathedral in 1962, the work was intended by the composer as an act of reparation. This autumn, the English National Opera is staging it in a new production to mark the centenary of the end of WWI.
A hymn to peace just as much as a memorial for those lost to the ravages of war, Britten’s score combines the traditional Latin words of the requiem or funeral service with the poetry of Wilfred Owen, who was killed in 1918 just a week before the end of the fighting.
The requiem refers to both the first and second world wars, and indeed to all conflicts. The ENO’s staging effectively calls to mind the universality of war, as well as its uniformly disastrous repercussions for both those fighting and those left behind. At first glance, the large chorus of adults and children appear to all be wearing the same clothes, but closer inspection reveals a variety of costumes that use the same colour palette to indicate different professions and social classes. The choreography repeatedly picks out different members of the chorus to be the subject of mourning, effectively suggesting that war and its consequences can affect anyone.
Although this conveys the desired point effectively, it has to be said that the constant shuffling, falling and “dying” of the numerous chorus members is often rather distracting and confusing. It would perhaps be more visually and emotionally effective to allow the cast to remain still more often, and to pick out a central narrative that the audience could relate to – as in the beautiful 1989 Derek Jarman film adaptation. There are some particularly engaging moments, such as a funeral scene in the snow, which could perhaps be developed further.
The set design, created by photographer Wolfgang Tillmans, is similarly patchy. The in-depth programme notes, with quotes from photography theorist Susan Sontag, help to make sense of some of the source material, but it must be a bit baffling to those without this aid. Much of the time, the performers are left against a bare stage, giving a feeling of drabness at odds with the haunting music.
Nonetheless, there are some beautiful sequences, such as a vertigo-inducing film of dirty sea-foam blowing across a beach, and a series of photographs of splintered trees, subtly indicating the pollution and violence of conflict. War, Tillmans suggests, is against nature.
Against this unsettling and sometimes distracting background, however, the quality of the singing is superb. Roderick Williams’s baritone is transcendental, full of emotion and matched by an impressive acting performance. Williams’s voice also blends well with that of tenor David Butt Philip, who also gives an excellent performance. Emma Bell’s role makes an interesting counterpoint to the two male singers, adding an important element of drama.
Photo: Richard Hubert Smith
Britten’s War Requiem is at the London Coliseum until 7th December 2018. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.