Tuesday, June 14, 2016

'Buried Alive' at St Giles Church, 13th June 2016

"Among all the torments that Mankind is capable of, the most dreadful of them is to be buried alive." So says The Most Lamentable And Deplorable Accident, a 1661 pamphlet describing the deeply unpleasant fate of Lawrence Cawthorn. Prior to modern medical science, comas and deep unconsciousness were often mistaken for death and with little way of delaying decomposition corpses were buried pretty damn fast.

So imagine poor Mr Cawthorn, gradually coming to and finding himself in pitch blackness. He tries to sit up, hitting his head as he feels the cold, hard wood surrounding him. Panic sets in. He begins to scream and scream and scream.

Churchgoers, alarmed by "great groanings and shriekings" from underground hastily disinterred him and opened the coffin to reveal a terrible sight: "the shroud was torn to pieces; the eyes were swollen; the brains beaten out of the head; clots of blood were to be seen at the mouth; and his breast was bruised black and blue."

So yeah, being buried alive sucks: confirmed. But how does it feel to be in the freshly buried's shoes? Oskar McCarthy's Buried Alive gives us an idea of the sadness, claustrophobia and misery via a performance of Swiss composer Othmar Schoech's Lebendig Begraben, a song cycle adapted from a poem by Gottfried Keller, sung from the perspective of the newly buried. Our protagonist awakes in panic, praying that a mourning girlfriend will hear his cries, or that an opportunistic grave robber will come to his rescue. No-one comes, and as the air thins he eventually sinks into hypoxic delusion.

For starters, McCarthy knows how to set a scene. Having initially performed this in the marvellously opulent Brompton Oratory last October, he shifts to the similarly impressive St Giles Church in Camberwell. From the moment you enter, the place practically shivers with atmosphere. Candles dot the aisle at the centre of the nave, creating a gloominess that's underlined by the gradually waning summer sun shining through the stained glass. At the crossing, a simple black coffin stands surrounded by a ring of candles.

Jammed inside with nary an inch of free space, McCarthy looks believably corpse-like, the underlighting giving his features a tinge of Hammer Horror. It's a powerful theatrical image, one able to withstand the enforced stillness of the performance. On top of that, McCarthy, though constricted to the coffin, puts in a great physical performance. As he sings out his claustrophobic despair he wriggles uncomfortably in his box, clenching and unclenching his fists. By the end he's mixing in an effective bit of mime, pressing against the unmoving lid in horror.

It's quiet, dreamlike and slightly hypnotic, McCarthy's baritone as convincing communicating hope as it is plumbing the depths of despair. I've seen this performer in a number of things: Pop-Up Opera's Cosi fan tutte and L'Italia in Algeri, and recently Midsummer Opera's Don Giovanni. Each time he's stood out in an ensemble cast and here, with the spotlight firmly on him, he similarly excels. There's a fine balance to his performance style, believably and naturalistically inhabiting a character whilst delivering a fantastic vocal performance. 

A church-set German language song cycle might not sound like the most thrilling time, but wherever this plays next it's well worth a look-see. Tinged with cool gothic morbidity and with a deft, light and effective theatrical touch, Buried Alive is going to stick in the memory for a while yet.


For information on future performances please see buried-alive.org

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