Round Chapel, Hackney
Reviewed – 17th August 2021
“like earlier work, delights in pushing boundaries”
RUNE, Alastair White’s latest “fashion opera”, has just premiered as part of the Tête à Tête’s 2021 feast of contemporary, experimental operas. And as we navigate this second year of socially distanced performances during the COVID pandemic, Tête à Tête have also ensured that this performance can be viewed at a later date. If you missed last night’s live performance at the Round Chapel in Hackney—you will have another opportunity to catch up with it online on September 17th.
Fans of White’s previous fashion operas ROBE and WEAR will welcome RUNE. It has the familiar hallmarks of atonal music; a metaphorically dense, lyrical libretto, together with performers dressed in extraordinary costumes that heighten the settings of otherworldliness and dissonance that White is known for. If there’s one problem with last night’s performance at the Round Chapel, it is that the singers, dancers and musicians were simply lost in the space. Even the three grand pianos on stage failed to tame it. And that’s a pity, because the space is quite remarkable, (a sensitively restored Victorian chapel with elegant ironwork arches) and the acoustics good. If the sixty minute performance of RUNE that audiences saw last night is the complete work, it might be better to use more intimate spaces in future.
RUNE is described as a story on a planet “where history is forbidden.” In the opening moments, we are introduced to Kes’Cha’Au “ a young girl who dares to tell her story.” The description suggests an intriguing tale full of references to sea journeys to other cultures, but a story that seems to exist apart from any history that audiences would recognize. Is White’s point is that to escape history, we have to live exclusively in the world of the imagination? At any rate, White’s libretto is part Scandinavian sea saga in style, and also reminiscent of modernist poets from the early twentieth century. The company has been thoughtful enough to provide a copy in the programme, and it’s a dense read.
White is clever at finding gifted collaborators to work with, and his singers and musicians in particular serve his work well in RUNE. Soprano Patricia Auchterlonie (Kes’Cha’Au) and mezzo soprano Simone Ibbett Brown as Khye-Rell show great musicality in their challenging roles, all the while encased from head to toe in visually arresting costumes. The day-glo enhanced creations of Ka Wa Key Chow and Jarno Leppanen, also known as the Ka Wa Key fashion house, are the artists who created the fashion element of RUNE, and their work is memorable both for the look and the construction. The pair favour bold colours and shapes contrasted with more earthy shades, and some of the fabrics that Ka Wa Key uses are particularly appropriate to RUNE’s world. These reflect an intimate knowledge of animal given materials such as mohair, and the human technologies (knitting) that shape them. The pianists, Ben Smith (also musical director), Siwan Rhys and Joseph Havlat are technically accomplished and pleasurable to watch, especially in the moments where their fingers leave the keyboards behind, and boldly pluck at the strings instead of striking them. The dancers, (aka The Waters) Ryan Appiah-Sarpong, Max Gershon, Shakeel Kimotho and Thomas Page, are elegant and eye catching in their Ka Wa Key Chow outfits. If you’ve never seen the drape and swirl of mohair knits in action—again, you’re in for a treat. Nevertheless, the staging and the choreography of RUNE are the weak spots of an otherwise intriguing evening. The movements of the dancers are lost not just in the vast space of the Round Chapel, but in the sight lines if you happen to be sitting at certain places in the gallery. The use of a small sculpture on stage (by Sid the Salmon), does not help with the feeling of alienation from the action. If anything, it just adds to the overload of stimuli that the socially distanced audience struggle to connect with.
If RUNE as a whole fails to connect in live performance, it is because each disparate part of the event commands the whole attention, whether it’s the singing, the playing, the dancing, and yes, the fashion. It’s a challenge to take in so much in one gestalt. Nevertheless, Alastair White’s work is all about discovering how to use familiar spaces in innovative ways. RUNE, like earlier work, delights in pushing boundaries. This newest piece intrigues while it baffles, and beckons as it sails to unimagined lands. Follow if you can.
Reviewed by Dominica Plummer
Catch up online via Tête à Tête until 15th October
Previously reviewed this year by Dominica: