Improbable / English National Opera, Satyagraha

Review in Issue 19-3 | Autumn 2007

Following Blind Summit’s collaboration on Madam Butterfly, Improbable bring their brand of visual theatre to the opera on Phillip Glass’s Satyagraha. And, as with Madam B, it is more than a tokenistic inclusion: ENO have really embraced the mores of visual theatre-making and taken on not only Improbable’s design and direction team (Julian Crouch and Phelim McDermott), but also a ‘skills ensemble’ of twelve puppeteers, aerialists, stilt-walkers, and prop-makers in order to enact the vision. And the end result? Well, it is visually beautiful, an aesthetic of ‘poor materials’ – corrugated metal, cardboard, paper, cloth – in a palette of rusts and browns, projected text layered over the materials in homage to the power of the word. (This is the story of Gandhi’s years in South Africa during which he published a newspaper titled Indian Opinion which drove the movement of non-violent resistance called satyagraha.).

It does feel a bit like a Cook’s Tour of Improbable’s greatest hits: Animated sheets of newspaper? Check. Sellotape? Check. Giant papier-mâché puppets that manifest from an assembly of body parts? Check. But all done very well, and perhaps that is enough – I’d just like to see Improbable doing something unexpected, something that had the power of 70 Hill Lane ten years ago!

My main problem with the production is that it is an opera, which is a ridiculous criticism I know. But what I mean is that I like it as a piece of visual/ musical theatre – there are instrumental sections where the glorious rising ‘ah ah aaaahs’ of Glass’s music works beautifully with the unfolding images, and scenes where a chorus of thirty plus sing, the sight and sound of such a mass of people on stage creating a wonderful image of a united force of human endeavour. But then there are the solos – which just seem to drag it down. I found it all too much really and longed for something simpler, less laboured. But the strength of the music and the beauty of the images have remained with me.

Presenting Venue
Date Seen
  1. Apr 2007

This article in the magazine

Issue 19-3
p. 34