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Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola: Facade and Eight Songs for a Mad King

Published by: Carolin Kopplin on 7th Sep 2014 | View all blogs by Carolin Kopplin


Our dark journey can now commence.

Melos Sinfonia and Helios Chamber Opera present William Walton's Façade and Peter Maxwell Davies' Eight Songs for a Mad King as a double-bill. Set a few months after the end of the First World War, this production takes us to a fictional hospital for patients who suffer from shell-shock. This work is a journey into 20th-century innovation and an exploration of mental illness.  

Director Ella Marchment creates the reality of a mental institution by dressing up the orchestra and the reciters in institutional clothing. As the audience enters, we see the patients whiling away the time before putting up this evening's entertainment - their own production of Façade as requested by Professor Gregory. Charmian Bedford and Danny Standing recite Edith Sitwell's poetry, accompanied by an orchestra that plays Walton's score - a variety of styles including 1920s jazz. Sometimes the music drowns out the poetry. A picture of a seascape serves as a screen for projections of short films and images of soldiers and everyday life in the 1920s. As the two performers recite Façade, they create situations reflecting their own experiences.


After the interval, Eight Songs for a Mad King offers a very different experience although it also compliments the preceding piece. Unlike Walton's music, which is melodious and accessible, Maxwell Davies' work is influenced by Stockhausen and serialism. The orchestra is made up to look like birds, adorned with feathers and dark markings around their eyes to give them a more bird like look. An officer, who thinks he is the mad King George III, is led onto the stage where he proceeds to teach the birds how to sing. The state of his delusional mind is reflected by a variety of projections of rotating lines and geometrical figures on the screen. As his confusion increases the wild dance of the lines becomes faster and more chaotic. Maxwell Davies' musical score adds to the unsettling atmosphere. The officer goes through a number of phases, represented by the eight songs, ending in the death of the King when the officer realises that all this is just in his head. Samuel Pantcheff is excellent as the mentally ill officer as he struts across the stage in his regal garments singing to a "bird", thinking it is a beautiful woman.

An intriguing and challenging production that should not be missed.

By Carolin Kopplin

Until 7 September at the Arcola Theatre

Address: 24 Ashwin St, London E8 3DL

10 September 2014, Rose Theatre Kingston (pre-concert talk by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies) - 020 8174 0090


1 Comment

  • Cameron Lowe
    by Cameron Lowe 3 years ago
    Thanks for your review Carolin. Grimeborn has produced such diverse productions!
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