[Equipment for Living]
An excuse to perform Schubert or an exploration of our Post-Trump age? Unstuck Opera’s newest work, The Winterreise Project, pits the subjects of Franz Schubert’s grim song cycle against the backdrop of the Trump presidency. In searching for connections between the two, director and performer Frances Moore presents the show to us as a form of personal respite – Schubert as an antidote to these chaotic and upsetting times.
Unlike the company’s promenade production of Dido and Aeneas last year, this is a considerably scaled back performance. The minimalist cabaret format is elegant in its simplicity, but also feels theatrically inert compared to the previous work. Song after song are interrupted with the occasional aside and commentary tossed in between. The heartbreak of Schubert’s protagonist versus Frances’ heartbreak of losing Hillary Clinton is the set-up here, but while it provides an amusing contrast, the actual comparison feels stretched and underdeveloped.
The text, co-written by its star alongside musical director Alex Taylor and producer Justin Gregory leaves a lot to be desired. The exploration of our current cultural anxiety over Trump and America is a worthy subject, but the use and abuse of hashtags and ad hominem attacks on the notorious president are feeble at best, hardly better than your average Facebook post. We all know Trump is orange-tanned, obnoxious and narcissistic. The problem is that these insights are so obvious – such stuff that echo chambers are made of.
Purely as a performance of the song cycle, Unstuck Opera serve Schubert well, with the intimacy of the studio space working in the favour of the haunting Austrian music. You won’t get many opportunities to see and hear the composer like this often, and fans will find the experience rewarding, despite some omissions. But as a theatrical experience, the dramaturgy feels sorely lacking. I was struck by how barren the space felt of any actual sense of play. The tree branch that hangs over the set is a nice touch, but simply exists to be acknowledged during the performance of ‘The Linden Tree’. And there’s also a slight costume gag that really serves no purpose except as a quick chuckle.
So, while performed beautifully by Moore and her musicians, without a wider context and understanding of Schubert’s work (or even surtitles for the lyrics) the songs lose any real sense of meaning. We’re asked to buy into the premise because we’re told to. To simply believe that Winterreise says something about right here, right now.
What The Winterreise Project does well, unexpectedly in its final moments, is criticise itself. That is, it criticises its function and purpose, criticising all art and artists in the process. It scrutinises opera as a bourgeois art form dominated by old white men, recognising how inherently undemocratic the medium is. It’s a delicious moment of self-awareness that’s equal parts funny and painfully true. It’s greatest moment has nothing to do with Trump or Schubert, but the pressing question of whether or not art can really make a difference, particularly in times of crisis.
It calls to mind what poet Kenneth Burke calls, ‘equipment for living’. The idea that literature supplies us with tools for survival. Whether it’s in prose, plays, songs or poems, these tools supply us with metaphorical armour to defend ourselves with, ideologies to wield like weapons. Unstuck Opera doesn’t make an especially convincing case for Schubert as a panacea for our Trumpified age. But, in questioning the possibilities and ambitions of art as recipe for change, an important challenge has been set. A call to arms for both our artists and consumers to make a difference. And it’s this underlying sentiment that The Winterreise Project attains its greatest sense of purpose.
For a nice change, this moment is book-ended with a performance of Dinah Washington’s ‘This Bitter Earth’, which is simply perfection. Freed from the shackles of Schubert, the show finally finds a song that feels the most resonant in addressing our time of crisis. That the show doesn’t end here is a misstep as it stumbles awkwardly back to wrap up with Winterreise. A suitably circular coda, but not a particularly satisfying one.
The Winterreise Project plays at The Basement until 28 October.