Friday, August 21, 2015

'Daphne' at the Arcola Theatre, 20th August 2015

Daphne is the first show I've ever walked out on. I've sat through some painful productions in my time, but I tell myself I'm there to review, not to enjoy. After all, how can I write a truly objective review if I haven't seen half the show? So I won't be giving Daphne a star rating, but I'd like to explain exactly why I left. What was it about Daphne, one of the jewels in the Arcola's well regarded 'Grimeborn' opera season, that had me beating a hasty retreat?

First things first, Daphne wasn't groundbreakingly awful. The Arcola Theatre has a high standards, and for the most part this was no exception. Though performed for just one night show, lighting, costumes and set were as on point as you'd expect from a place like this. The performances were similarly competent: after all, when you attend an opera, you can be pretty confident that everyone on stage will have years of vocal training.

Here is where it starts to get a little awkward. You see, unbeknownst to me, Daphne was entirely in German. Now, this shouldn't be too much of a hurdle. Almost all of the operas I've attended over the few years have been in unfamiliar languages. I've even enjoyed a production of Uncle Vanya in Russian.

However, during all of these productions the audience has the benefit of surtitles or scene summaries to tell us what the hell was going on. These can be line by line translations, or short paragraphs explaining what's happening in each scene and who the characters are. Opera naturally deals in broad emotional strokes, so usually a couple of words like 'Character X wants to bone Character Y. But Character Z intercedes' are all you need. 

Daphne had these scene summaries. But, here's the crucial thing from my assigned seat (G36), I couldn't see them. Some bright spark decided to project them in a place where those sat at the top of stage right had a brick wall blocking the view. This had the effect of rendering the show complete gobbledegook.

I have no idea what is happening.
Let me summarise what I saw. A mopey woman named Daphne hugs some ribbons for a bit. Then someone does a Nazi salute. "Ah-ha!" I think "okay, we're in Nazi Germany, maybe I've got a chance of figuring this one out". A bald man enters in a broken hat and parades around. Two women dress him in a skirt and woman's wig. A cowboy emerges. A man in a gas mask ominously appears and gets topless. What the hell is going on?!

It's like being in a bizarre fever dream where nothing makes sense. Cowboys? Gas masks? Fat guys dressed as little girls? Frantically I try to assemble them into some kind of narrative, but it's like jamming mismatched puzzle pieces into each other. The most I can gather is that most of these people appear to want to bang Daphne, but she's not up for it.

I can tell the audience in my row is getting a little testy. A guy pulls out his phone and begins answering his emails. Ordinarily I'd get a bit huffy, but for once I can sympathise. After all, I'm there on a complementary press ticket, but if I'd paid for these seats I wouldn't be at all happy. 

Finally the interval arrives. I approach a woman as we're leaving and ask:

"Sorry, I don't want to seem like a dunce, but what's going on?". 

She responds:

"Oh, didn't you know it was in German?

I hadn't, but that's never stopped me enjoying a show before. 

"So, uh, who was the guy in the gas mask?"

"That's Apollo."

"And the cowboy?"


Then she shoots me an incredibly snooty look and says:

"Next time you come to the opera maybe you should educate yourself a bit first?"

Daaaaaamn that's cold. Right, well, my next thought was "Bollocks to this. I'm going home." The Grimeborn Festival claims "it has consistently challenged the perception that opera is inaccessible and elitist." But from where I was sitting Daphne was about as inaccessible and elitist as it gets.

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