King Arthur

Choral group Sestina adapt Henry Purcell's semi-opera with staggering results in Derry~Londonderry

The audience isn’t big enough. That is my only criticism.

At Christ Church, Derry~Londonderry, the city-based Sestina choral group present its new production of King Arthur, directed by Tom Guthrie, with musical direction by Mark Chambers. The production is a collaboration between the two men. It takes as its basis the semi-opera with music by Henry Purcell and libretto by John Dryden, which was first performed in 1691.

Chambers and Guthrie have taken certain songs and music from the original, and then added their own story. Set in the trenches of First World War, the action focuses loosely on three soldiers and their lovers – the major’s wife, a nurse at the front, and a private’s young bride. The narrative is cleverly loose. It drifts through the production like a ghost.

Sestina's King Arthur is a series of moving tableaux, in which the singers and orchestra of baroque instruments present a pageant of scenes from the trenches and home leave. The only speaking part is Guthrie’s. He gives a vernacular commentary that mixes reality and legend.

Christ Church provides the perfect setting. The pulpit becomes a lookout post, a machine gun guards the apse, sandbags protect the altar, barbed wire rings the chancel, and soldiers stalk through the knave, around the pews.

A night patrol lit by torches and later by candles trudges through no-man’s land, past the memorial to the dead of two world wars, the names of captains and privates, able seamen and a ship’s surgeon – brothers and cousins – forgotten and familiar. Like so much in this production, this scene is poignant and telling.

Guthrie’s performance carries the narrative. His presence is commanding and reassuring, although never domineering or overbearing. He is the regular soldier, the old lag lance corporal, the affectionate father-figure to the youth around him. His performance is loving, tender, wry and amused.

His was a hopeful hopelessness, taking joy where it could be found but knowing and hiding the certainty of how it would all end – in darkness, silence, the melody gone, the air taken. His commentary advances the scenes, particularly in the first half, awaiting zero hour, talking of King Arthur and pondering his arrival but knowing it will never come. The heroes here are the ordinary men and women full of innocent duty and honour.

The music of the Sestina singers and musicians is extraordinarily beautiful, filling the church with power and clarity. It seems unfair to pick out individuals, such is the skill of every voice, but Sinead O’Kelly deserves special mention for the variety of her performance, poignant and tender at one time, joyous and earthy at others. Fiona Flynn and Aaron O’Hare are wonderful too, particularly in a duet of love and duty, frustration and acceptance.

The music is played with flair and reserve. The trumpets of Neil Brough and Robert Vanryne provide a military echo, Jonny Byers’ cello gives a haunting depth, and Paula Chateauneuf’s archlute is a constant measure throughout.

This is a production of contrasts cleverly blended. A holy place of worship is overcome by the brutality of war. The heroic legend of King Arthur is displaced by the naive or knowing bravery of ordinary men and women. The purity of the music and the lyricism of the words stands in sharp contrast against the grimness, pain, futility and loss of conflict.

The second half rushes in song towards the death that zero hour will bring. The closer to darkness, the more vivid the love, the more desperate the carousing. The elegant choreography of the first half gives way to a comic movement at one point, with the actors bouncing up and down like a comic parade, peeping over the brim of a trench.

And there is a measured, slow trudge to the stage by one soldier, sprinkled with snow from a pan held by a stage hand, reminiscent of a priest’s process towards the altar, or a sacrifice’s ritual steps towards his own death.

I love everything about this production. It is a haunting and lyrical. It summons echoes of a pastoral, lost idyll, a story mired in mud but also deep-rooted in land and soil and country. It is contrast and counterpoint, rich, elegant, poetic, heroic and colloquial, yearning and heart-breaking, earthbound and ethereal, sombre and joyful. Everyone involved should be bursting with pride. And not enough people saw it.