REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on University of York Music Department’s Practical Project, Antigone

The artwork for the University of York Music Department’s Antigone

University of York Music Department Practical Project: Antigone, Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall, University of York, November 3 to 5

REWRITING Sophocles is a dangerous exercise. The tragedy Antigone is the last of his so-called Theban trilogy and a cornerstone of western drama, as relevant today as when it was written nearly 2,500 years ago.

Seamus Heaney wrote a concise version of the story, leaning towards poetry, while Jean Anouilh’s play, inspired by the Nazi occupation of Paris, explores its meaning.

Sadly, Jon Hughes’s abridged paraphrase is not in either category. Its use in the university music department’s latest Practical Project, a rite of passage designed to welcome and incorporate the latest intake of undergraduates, meant that barely half the evening, its incidental music, was devised by the students themselves.

His introduction mentioned Antigone’s possible parallels with Greta Thunberg or Malala Yousafzai. Yet his play remained rooted firmly in ancient Greece, whereas a modern scenario – surely not beyond the wit of these talented students – might have justified reinterpreting this ancient text.

The net result was that the ‘theatrical’ side of this drama, co-directed by Lucy Grehan-Bradley and Roseanna Schmidt, was seriously undercooked. Despite the use of face microphones, too few of the actors observed two basic rules: face your audience and project to the back row. Dialogues were carried on quietly like conversations over a cup of coffee rather than shared with the audience.

There were notable exceptions. Kieran Crowley’s Tiresias, who also voiced the prologue, made a laudable attempt to inject drama into his lines. So too did Christina-Alexandra Higgins as Antigone’s sister Ismene, albeit in a much briefer appearance.

Dom Sutton’s Creon, a pivotal figure here, at least made us aware of his dilemma as a ruler whose power base might crumble. But Katerina Poulios, despite singing her lament with conviction, otherwise gave a shy, retiring Antigone, quite the reverse of the figure found in Sophocles. Several lesser characters despatched their lines robotically, as if barely involved.

Things were altogether better on the musical front. The seven episodes of the drama were interwoven with 11 musical interludes which generally exhibited admirable craftsmanship. Musical director Becky Lund, who took the lion’s share of the conducting with considerable authority, also contributed a War Prelude of heavy percussion and catchy rhythms. Helen Southernwood offered a passionate lament for Ismene in modal minor style, although her concept of ‘continuo’ – unabated background noise, even during the interval – was less appealing.

There were several attempts to bring back choral speaking, which enjoyed a certain fashion before the Second World War. But this hall is so unkind to speech that they were regrettably doomed to failure and proved virtually unintelligible.

Anna Benton’s neo-Romantic lament for Antigone was intriguing, however, and Anna Nightingale’s two odes used a wide range of techniques. Both choir and orchestra showed great commitment under duress. But in the end the formula was too prescriptive, as if to ward off failure rather than taking risks and allowing full rein to the new students’ imaginations.

Review by Martin Dreyer

Little Britches Theatre Company to launch outdoor staging of Shakespeare’s Will… with Sunday afternoon tea in Ampleforth

Imogen Hope, left, and Josie Campbell in rehearsal for Shakespeare’s Will. Pictures: Michael J Oakes

LITTLE Britches Theatre Company should have launched already in Dubai but “guess what happened in between” then and now.

Instead, pushed back by the pandemic and now back home, North Yorkshire duo Josie Campbell and Imogen Hope will present Vern Thiessen’s two-hander Shakespeare’s Will in a private show in a Sutton-on-the-Forest garden on Friday night, followed by a public performance with afternoon tea at Hearts of Ampleforth, near Helmsley, on Sunday at 2.30pm.

In this one-hour, pop-up outdoor show about Anne Hathaway’s imagined life with, but mostly without, playwright William Shakespeare, teacher, theatre-maker, performer and erstwhile voiceover artist Josie will play Anne.

Theatre-maker, actor, musician and performing arts teacher Imogen will take the role of Actor-Musician.

“We are delighted to be performing our work within the community,” says Josie, who officially formed Little Britches with Imogen earlier this year while she was still living in the United Arab Emirates. Now the company is based in Ampleforth.

“Join us for a taste of some Renaissance mud, blood, and occasional stud, in this hilarious, energetic and ultimately tragic tale of love, labour and loss,” says Josie.

Here, she and Imogen answer CharlesHutchPress’s questions about Shakespeare’s Will, Little Britches’ projects and their creative partnership.

How and where did you meet Imogen, Josie?

“We’ve known each other since Immy was 13! She was in the same year as my son, Archie, at Gilling (Ampleforth College). I was subsequently her assistant housemistress when she moved to Ampleforth.

“I taught her A-level Theatre Studies, as well as coaching her through her ATCL Acting Diploma. We’ve kept in touch on and off through the years.”

How did you settle on the name Little Britches and why, Josie?

“Ha! I had a shortlist of possibles but we both liked the fact that this is a bit cheeky. We’re both little in stature – Immy’s taller! – and the ‘breeches’ reference resonated with the fact that our first play was set in a time when these were worn.”

How did you come across Vern Thiessen’s Shakespeare’s Will, Josie?

“It premiered in 2005 in Canada, where it has been performed extensively. The USA premiere was produced by Leonard Nimoy (yes, Spock!).

“I had spent ages and ages looking for a one-act, small-cast play that featured a woman of my age. It wasn’t easy, I can tell you! From a Little Britches point of view, there is still acres more space for women’s stories to be told.”

Josie Campbell rehearsing a scene from Little Britches Theatre Company’s Shakespeare’s Will

How would you sum up the play, Josie?  

“It’s a play about Anne’s imagined life with – but mostly without – her increasingly famous husband. Beginning just after his funeral, she prevaricates over reading the will, using the time to reminisce about her life.

“It’s been described as ‘catnip for Shakespeare fans’ and I love that! It’s light and irreverent, but there’s a point in the play when it darkens as the plague arrives…and there’s a tragic twist at the end.

“It does help to have a bit of knowledge about who Anne Hathaway was, and especially the debate surrounding ‘the second-best bed’, but it’s not essential.”

What are the themes, Josie?

“What appealed to me was that the play is a life as seen through the eyes of a woman – from a very domestic point of view. She’s more or less a single mother, keeping it together while her husband’s life turns out to be bigger than hers.

“There is so much that resonates for woman: accidental pregnancy, the less-than-idyllic realities of childbirth and babies, single motherhood, challenging relationships with in-laws, absent husbands, sexual freedom. I see a lot of wry smiles from women in the audience when we perform this!

“Its femininity as a play is represented by the fluidity of the repeated water/sea motif. The sea is Anne’s ‘safe space’, her retreat.

“There are also references in the play to theatres closing because of the plague. Maybe Vern Thiessen had a crystal ball when he wrote this!”

What does your staging of a show involve, Josie?

“We’re truly a pop-up show, so our set is whatever and wherever the backdrop is. We can perform in very intimate spaces – anywhere where you can fit an audience, from private gardens and cafés/pubs to larger arts centres and theatres.

“We can fit all our props – from model ships to a bunch of rosemary…and the will – in a hand basket. If the host can’t provide anything suitable, we bring along a table and chair. Of course, Imogen brings her violin, her guitar and her beautiful voice.”

What music have you composed for Shakespeare’s Will, Imogen?

“The period of the play is Elizabethan and so a folk-music style felt fitting. Some of the pieces, such as the fiddle jigs and the ‘Love Theme’, are taken from traditional folk tunes.

“However, some of the other tunes played and sung are composed by me, making sure to keep the folk genre and style consistent.

Where there’s Hope: Imogen Hope will provide the music for Little Britches’ production of Shakespeare’s Will

“Music is integral to our performance. It’s multi-purpose by its addition to the context of a scene, providing sub-text and fitting in with the overall performance arc. The use of leitmotifs is important in supporting this and also allows for a more conjunct flow between the spoken text and the music.”

What do you enjoy about performing two-handers, Josie?

“I much prefer it to performing solo! It allows us more flexibility in staging and the energy.

“It’s a wonderfully collaborative experience as we learn to bounce off each other. Imogen accuses me of giving her all the lines that I don’t want to learn, but that’s absolutely not true!

“It’s also great to build a relationship with the audience over the course of the play. There’s no fourth wall.”

What did your lockdown What Makes Me Woman online monologue project involve, Imogen? 

“I took the lead on this project, where a collection of original monologues was rehearsed and performed online on the subject of ‘What Makes Me Woman’.

“We asked for submissions and received an eclectic range of different writing styles and varied topics related to the given title. After receiving the submissions, we posted a call-out for performers and directors. Short summaries of the monologues were given so people could choose a first and second option for which monologue they were most interested in performing/directing.

“After putting the different teams together, it was up to them to rehearse and record:  they had a choice on how much editing they would like to do and the style in which they recorded it.

“Also note that none of these teams had met before.”

Who took part, Imogen?

“Our writers, performers and directors were a mix of ages and levels of experience – we had well-seasoned and experienced theatre-makers and we also had those who wanted to try their hand at something new.

“Wanting to promote a self-space where people could explore this and help each other with nurturing these skills was something important to the project.”

When was the work premiered, Imogen?

“We held a premiere in May of all the monologues online and hosted a Q&A afterwards to allow all the teams to meet and to discuss what the process had been like.

“Something that struck us was the community we had created. We weren’t entirely sure what the project would be like, but it was beautiful. A collection of voices from places near and far coming together to celebrate, commiserate and contemplate what it meant for them to be a woman.”

“There is so much that resonates for woman,” says Josie Campbell of Shakespeare’s Will

Who have you had as guests and what have you discussed in Coffee Morning Chats, your series of Zoom sessions where you talk to theatre makers about claiming their space within the industry, Imogen?

“Coffee Morning Chats was something we wanted to start after our ”What Makes Me Woman’ project. We wanted to continue this idea of a community through arts and conversation.

“We started pre-recording these and asked some of our fellow artists to join. However, we have had to take a hiatus with this when starting our tour of Shakespeare’s Will. It is something we want to continue but have put on the back burner, so watch this space!”

What are your upcoming plans, Josie?

“This autumn, I’m off to Central [School of Speech and Drama, London] to do an MA in Training and Coaching Actors, while Imogen returns to her job as a performing arts teacher in the West Midlands.

“But we will continue to pop up when we can, plus hopefully we’ll launch schools’ workshops. We’re also beginning to develop our own material.”

Four facts about Josie Campbell

1. At the 2019 Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre season at the Eye of York, Josie performed “on the wagon” as part of the pre-show entertainment in Shakespeare’s Village as Third Witch in the opening scene of Macbeth. Director Eleanor Ball is now executive producer of the Marilyn 60 project, One Night With Marilyn.

2.Josie is the voice of Oxford Park & Ride. “I used to be a voiceover artist, but my microphone has been packed away for a while as I much prefer live theatre performance,” she says.

3. In Dubai, Josie performed in the Short and Sweet Festival and directed Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House for Dubai Drama Group.

4. Josie has not read Hamnet, Maggie O’Farrell’s family drama about William Shakespeare, his wife Agnes Hathwey (also called Anne Hathaway) and their grief over the death of their son Hamnet. “But everyone keeps telling me to read it. It’s next on my list!” she says.

Four facts about Imogen Hope

1.Actor, writer, director, producer, musician and teacher Imogen is from Northallerton, North Yorkshire .

2. She studied music (first study, singer) at the University of York, graduating in 2020.

3. At present, she is based between North Yorkshire and the West Midlands because of her job down there, teaching performing arts to pupils aged eight to 18.

4. On Zoom, she performed in Thunk-It Theatre’s project Common Ground for the National Student Drama Festival.

Little Britches Theatre Company in Shakespeare’s Will, at Hearts of Ampleforth, near Helmsley, August 15 at 2.30pm. Tickets cost £15, including afternoon tea, from the café or on 01439 788166; cash only. Proceeds will go to Cancer Research UK.

Debut online York New Music Weekend launches at University of York on Friday

Christian Mason: Composer and University of York alumnus at the heart of the first York New Music Weekend

THE inaugural York New Music Weekend will be launched on Friday at the University of York.

Running for three days but staying online for longer, this new annual festival celebrates contemporary music in York.

Under the theme of Time-Space-Sound-Light, the weekend centres on the work of Christian Mason, an award-winning composer and alumnus of the University of York’s department of music.

The online event includes premieres of new pieces and music by the composers who have influenced him, performed by members of The Octandre Ensemble, The Assembled, pianist Rolf Hind and The Chimera Ensemble.

Interviews and recordings contribute to a rounded profile of this leading British young composers.

In Friday’s opening 1pm concert, recorded at the Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall, The Chimera Ensemble, Britain’s largest student-run contemporary music ensemble, present new works by student composers Emily Linane (Flute Miniature), Lucy Havelock (that silk, unrestricted), Joe Bates (Cataracts), Fred Viner (Bells Wrung) and Becky Davidson-Lund (Shade And Light).

Anna Meredith: Composer studied at the University of York. Picture: Owen Richards

After Axeman by University of York alumna and BBC 6 Music favourite Anne Meredith, the concert concludes with a piece as reflective as its title, Pauline Oliveros’s Mirrorrorrim.

Based on the theme of expressing the visual, the Chimera programme weaves its way from mirrors to luminosity and the nature of bells, exploring colour and texture while featuring an unconventional use of fabric, amplification and distortion.

At 7pm on Friday, Rolf Hind’s online piano concert, Nature, Lockdown And Dreams Of Travel, includes Hind’s Bhutani and Hind et al’s Lockdown Sequence (pieces written for Hind in lockdown from a call on Facebook), Matthew King’s When Birds Do Sing, Christian Mason’s Three Waves From Afar, Elaine Michener’s Tree Scream and Messiaen’s Le Loriot from Catalogue d’Oiseaux.

Online on Saturday at 7pm, pianist Hind and Mason (rin bells, harmonica, electronics) join fellow members of The Octandre Ensemble, Audrey Milhères (piccolo, flute) and Corentin Chassard (cello, scordatura cello) to perform Mason’s Just As The Sun Is Always.

In Sunday’s 1pm online concert, pianist Kate Ledger and The Assembled present the world premiere of Androgynette, a multimedia work by Ledger, James Redelinghuys and artist Angie Guyton. Watch Three Refractions Of A Body Etude on Ledger’s YouTube channel for a flavour of what to expect.

At the festival’s second concert by The Chimera Ensemble, the university’s new music ensemble, on Sunday at 7pm, the focus turns to new works by composers, largely from Yorkshire and the North East, alongside student works.

Rolf Hind, Christian Mason and Kate Ledger: Prominent roles in the inaugural York New Music Weekend

Again recorded at the Lyons, the programme comprises: Ed Cooper’s …incantations fixate…; Linda Catlin-Smith’s Knotted Silk; Nicholas Peters, Placebo; Michele Abondano, The Shimmer Beneath: A Scattering Attempt; James McLeish, Crimson; Rossa Juritz, the sound of wooden dusk; Rebecca Peake, Purple Smoke, and Yue Ming’s The Eternal Circle, plus reprises of Anna Meredith’s Axeman and Pauline Oliveros’s Mirrorrorrim.

This programme considers time, colour, texture and fabric, typified by Catlin-Smith’s irregularly spaced Knotted Silk and Peters’ rhythmically forceful Placebo as The Chimera Ensemble inhabit an exhilarating array of sound worlds.

Among other events this weekend is an interactive video collaboration of dance, music and cinematography between the Scottish Ensemble, Scottish Dance Theatre and composer Martin Suckling, entitled these bones, this flesh, this skin. 

This Watch Anytime feature is a digital work for solo violin and solo dancer by composer Martin Suckling, choreographer Joan Clevillé and cinematographer Genevieve Reeves. Through a bespoke online platform, audience members are invited to combine different audio and visual layers to decide how they want to experience the work in multiple iterations.

Born out of this unique period in our lives, the piece “explores how heightened attention can reveal different experiences of time in our bodies and the environment around us”. This layering of simplicity and complexity also manifests in the way the viewer/listener is asked to make decisions.

In a nutshell, “with every new iteration, we discover new perspectives, new nuances waiting for us in the spaces in between music, cinematography and dance, between the traces of our own memories and the aliveness of our attention.”

Composer Martin Suckling: Interactive video collaboration with the Scottish Ensemble and Scottish Dance Theatre, combining dance, music and cinematography

Another Watch Anytime feature, Distanced Modularity, is presented by Jethro Bagust, Lynette Quek and Ben Eyes, who contend that “the pandemic has been a disaster of unimaginable proportions. Making art and music during such a time, while others are suffering and enduring great hardship, seems futile.

“However, music and art are a great comfort to many, perhaps not more so than the musicians themselves and the social interaction that plays an indelible role in music.”

Using the Ninjam server set-up at York to synchronise two geographically distant modular synth set-ups; Bagust and Eyes explore how streams of found audio, real-time modular synthesis, stochastic compositional processes and video (courtesy of Lynette Quek) can be merged online to create a real-time audio-visual miasma. The piece was recorded live in one take after several distanced rehearsals.

Jethro says: “The instrument I play is populated with numerous chance elements that are linked to musical parameters. These elements of uncertainty blur the distinction between the roles of performer, composer, and audience because we are all hearing the music for the first time.

“Improvising with indeterminate instruments such as this, that defer the note by note production to algorithms, might be akin to steering an animal that you can point in a particular direction but not precisely know their behaviour.

“There is a tension between the human and the machine; the player must listen and react, responding to the system at an indirect meta-level.

A still from Jethro Bagust, Ben Eyes and Lynette Quek’s Distanced Modularity

The pre-recorded audio sources are from John Cage and Morton Feldman, In Conversation, Radio Happening I of V, recorded at WBAI, New York City, 1966-1967.

“Ben’s own set-up is based around a custom Max/Msp patch, linked to a modular synth, that allows real-time interaction with musical sequences and rhythms. Influenced by dub and techno, sound sources in the system are filtered, delayed and reverberated live in the mix to create musical form and progression,” says Jethro.

The festival’s five concerts, all recorded live, will be complemented by a round-table discussion on Sunday at 2pm when the speakers will be British composers and musicologists Martin Suckling, Minyung Im, Carmen Troncoso Caceres, Richard Kearns and Catherine Laws, in response to the pandemic-enforced closure of venues generating an explosion of online music-making.

Join the creative teams behind the festival’s Watch Anytime features, these bones, this flesh, this skin, Ceci n’est pas un piano and Between Air, Clay And Woods Of Certain Flutes, as they discuss ways to approach online performance beyond the “filmed concert” paradigm.

“Explore their online features and bring your questions to this interactive session,” comes the invitation to an event hosted on Zoom. Ticketholders will be emailed the Zoom link the day before the event.

All events are free but booking is required at Ticketholders can watch all the performances on demand until Sunday, July 11 at 23.59pm.