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Sunday 12 May 2013

Btn Fest Review - 'Britten: The Canticles' Vies For Best Production Of Brighton Festival 2013

For the past week Ben Britten has looked anxiously on (from the silver vault Made in Heaven for all writers artists and musicians).



He has watched Stravinsky leap from cloud to cloud in joy thanks to the Great Enormo Rosen, he has see Schubert's puffed out cheeks go pink with pride at Paul Lewis' great expressionist rendition of his sonatas. But poor Ben has had nothing, so far, and in his centenary year and all.

Since last Thursday that's all changed. Now is his chance to shine and how brightly shines the star of this big genius and all the little geniuses that came together to roll out a show like 'Britten: The Canticles' at the Theatre Royal, Brighton.

Pulling together music, singing, film, dance, acting and 'movement' this was a show all choreographed and profound rather than just directed and shown.

Seamless, beautiful and always striking just the right note its only shame was that it was only being performed once, this deserved a week of performances at the very least. 


'Britten: The Canticles' is simply the performance of the festival so far, Ian Bostridge and Iestyn Davies led the cast in a this stunning production by Neil Bartlett and Paule Constable. 

Britten's canticles are a kind of high art in tapas form. Five short pieces, like the dishes in a fine Andalucían mountaintop bar, make up a fantastic but rich menu.

No pomp, no snobbery, no nothing-like-that. This is art, plain and simple, but with a bewitching complexity that lies just underneath the surface if you really want to go and take a peek.  

The longest piece is seventeen minutes, the shortest just seven, all were written at different time from the 1940s to the 1970s, but are usually performed together. 

Some are remembrances of dead friends, others adaptations of poems by Edith Sitwell and T S Elliot. 

Canticle one, 'My Beloved Is Mine', for example, is a remembrance of his friend Dick Sheppeard, and was visualised by the choreographer of this production as a passionate but unfulfilled sexual moment shared by two men over breakfast.

"He is my altar, and I his holy place,
I am his guest and he my living food.
I"m his by penitence, he mine by grace
I"m his by purchase, he is mine by blood.
He"s my supporting elm, and I his vine:
Thus I my best beloved"s am,
Thus he is mine."

Canticle Three 'Still Falls the Rain', is based upon a poem 'The Canticle of the Rose' by Edith Sitwell, and is an imagination, from experience, of the bombing of London by Nazi aircraft during the Blitz.

The works seems to compare the bombs that fell on the city with the nails spears and thorns that were said to torment Christ on the Cross. 

His pain is compared with suffering of London, and imagined in film by this production using the back wall of the Theatre Royal stage as a backdrop, all grey brickwork, industrial and usually unseen, with shining images of bombs falling, an ironic cloudburst.

"Still falls the rain -
Dark as the world of men, black as our loss-
Blind as the nineteen hundred and forty nails
Upon the cross "

Looking at the sources that Britten Drew on for his canticles; friends, poets, Bible stories - it seems to me that the Canticles were already a kind of collaboration, of sorts, from their various inceptions across the years.

Thus, it is fitting that the process of this new production should be a collaborative one, drawing upon the many talents, too numerous to say here, that have come together to create this jewel of a production.

Such is the quality of the Brighton Festival this year it will be hard for anyone to stand out, but this production has done so, head and shoulders.

You, who sat, last Thursday, in the Sydney Opera House or on Broadway, or at the Royal Ballet or the Bolshoi or some such world leading establishment of the arts, put you head in your hands and weep because you missed this, the most beautiful thing of all on a rainy night in Brighton.

Brighton Festival continues throughout this month. See brightonfestival.org for more details.


by: Howard Young (Arts Editor)


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