No red herring: balance and bananarmageddon

Friday 31 August 2012

Day two of rehearsals for ETO’s autumn production of Britten’s Albert Herring. Act 1, Scene 2. Herring (Mark Wilde), disillusioned by the monotony of a life working in the grocer’s is about to be interrupted by Emmie (Erin Hughes), entering in a whirlwind of hormones and non-sensical rattling.

I am particularly struck by the fluid approach that the whole Herring team have towards the rehearsal process. Balance is key: friendliness and professionalism, a relaxed atmosphere tempered with the utmost efficiency. Neither pushy nor dictatorial, the strength of Chris Rolls’ directorship lies with his ability to take inspiration from the intuitive reactions of his talented cast: A-Level-fresh Hughes absentmindedly plaiting her hair during a moment of respite prompts a “Girls in Topshop” characterisation of Emmie. Rolls is also very aware of the indications for gesture and emotion inherent in Britten’s score, and the intelligent cast never miss a beat (if you’ll pardon the pun) when picking up on the composer’s intentions.

Constant referral to the score does not inhibit the agency for individual interpretation, though. Rolls’ prowess here really comes to light when dealing with the interactions between characters. This is particularly noticeable in the latter part of the scene and the rapport between Florence Pike (Rosie Aldridge) and Mrs Herring (Clarissa Meek). Rolls envisages “a touch of Miss Marple” in Pike’s entrance and avoids the obsequious in his interpretation of Mrs Herring’s small-talk. Instead, latent tension presides, as well as an equal helping of assertive defence on the part of both feisty mezzos. The characterisations of both Herring and Emmie are similarly enhanced by a reading between both the literary and musical lines. Humour and depth of character exist simultaneously as the virtuous Herring becomes a petulant teenager, subverting the expectation that Emmie would be the one to add a touch of the adolescent.

Indeed, this is reflected in the staging: “Ten minutes in and we’ve already got a banana gag”, laughs Wilde to Jennifer Rhys-Davies (Lady Billows) during the tea break. The ascent of a particularly climactic phrase had prompted him, pent up with Herring’s frustration at his lot in life, to reach for the nearest prop, the aggressive crushing of a banana becoming symbolic of Herring’s resentful attitude towards working at the grocers. “Bananarmageddon!” exclaims Rolls, the tricky logistics of making a banana comically pop out of its skin having been resolved by conductor Michael Rosewell’s suggestion of a compulsory banana workshop.

Verity Bramson is a recent graduate of Cambridge University, marketing intern and champions the promotion of opera for the digital age. Her blog “No Red Herrings” takes a behind the scenes look at ETO’s Autumn 2012 production of Britten’s Albert Herring.

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