Saturday, July 15, 2017

Theatre: Enoch Arden (★★★★)

By Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Music by Richard Strauss
Performed by John Bell and Simon Tedeschi
His Majesty’s Theatre
June 14, 2017

It’s an auspicious gathering, a hundred and fifty-three years in the making. The master Victorian poet (Tennyson), the powerful, romantic composer (Richard Strauss), the grand old actor (John Bell) and the gifted accompanist (Simon Tedeschi), together in a magnificent Edwardian theatre.
Enoch Arden is a curiosity, and delivered, as it is here, with uncompromising fealty to its provenance, an anachronism.
But such is the charm and quality of its material, and such is the clarity and prudence of its performance, we’ve no reason to care.

Still, Bell and Tedeschi are taking no risks.
The pianist enters first, and takes us into the evening with the miraculous Schubert Impromptu No. 4, its breezes dancing through the rigging of a tall ship in a deep sea, followed by a dark, foreboding Brahms Intermezzo.
By the time Bell enters, bound volume in hand, to tell Tennyson’s story, we’re already in these tale-tellers’ hands.
The story is familiar. It’s been reworked since the earliest days of cinema, informing everything from The Return of Martin Guerre to Castaway (and, who knows, maybe even the next Bridget Jones adventure).
Two boys – the orphan Enoch and the miller’s son Phillip – and a girl, Annie, the “prettiest little damsel in the port”, grow up together in their little harbour town. She loves them both, but the orphan the most.
Enoch grows up strong, and able, and he dedicates his life to make his family with Annie, and provide for them (we are in Victorian England). Seven happy years and three children follow, but misfortune strikes and he must seek his living on far voyages.
Years pass, but he doesn’t return, and Annie slides into poverty until rescued, wooed and, finally, wed by Phillip.
Meanwhile, on a desert isle…
The tale is high, virtuous melodrama, but Tennyson narrates it with cool detachment and Bell is true to his words. Even when Enoch and Annie’s youngest child dies, “Like the caged bird escaping suddenly/ the little innocent soul flitted away”, Tennyson and Bell report the tragedy rather than grieve for it.
It’s a wise decision by poet and actor; it allows Tennyson’s language (which is very fine) to stand above the story’s emotion, and makes that emotion more effective in the process.
So to does Strauss’s incidental music, which is finely inserted between, and sometimes during, passages, and beautifully played by Tedeschi throughout.
Could more have been made of the production? Could the wonders of audio/visualisation, for example, created something contemporary, even ground-breaking, out of this old tale?
Of course. But for what it is, and for how it is done, we should be grateful for the art and craft of this Enoch Arden.

This review appeared in The West Australian 16.6.17   

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