The first performance of Against the Grain Theatre’s Bound took place at the Jackman Studio at the COC. It’s the first public airing of the piece in piano score, as a workshop, so it’s not the finished product. The performance was followed by a lively discussion about the work’s potential and future avenues to explore.
I think it’s fair to say that Bound ventures into more serious territory than we have yet seen from this company, dealing as it does with the fraught relationship between the state and the individual in an age when the state, egged on by the right wing media, uses fear of terrorism to suppress “dissidents”.
The space where the audience assembles before the show is liberally decorated with propaganda for The State of the “fear anything that looks different” variety. In the performance venue itself the audience is ranked either side of a space that contains the piano and, at intervals around the large empty floor, seven chairs; one for each detainee. The detainees are all being held for things which aren’t actually crimes but bring them under suspicion; wearing a hijab, having a Nazi great-uncle, wanting to emigrate to Sri Lanka, converting to Islam, having a terrorist brother, protesting immigration restrictions, being transgendered. They are posed essentially unanswerable Kafkaesque questions by the State interrogator (Martha Burns) sitting off in one corner with a microphone. The only answer is to express frustration and despair and, occasionally, defiance and hope in arias using Handel’s music and words by either Handel’s librettist or Joel Ivany. Some of the music has been somewhat reshaped by Kevin Lau who also wrote/arranged the final ensemble number.
It’s interesting. Some things work really well and others not so much. The singing is top drawer. It’s a great cast; Danika Lorèn, Miriam Khalil, David Trudgen, Asitha Tennekoon, Victoria Marshall, Michael Uloth and Justin Welsh. They can all sing Handel. Miriam goes further and adds some melismatic elements to great effect. The challenge perhaps is to find more ways of elaborating like that without falling into a bunch of clichés. The final ensemble number works really well. But, there’s the usual Handel problem of too many solo arias and not enough structural variation. Topher Mokrzewski directs from the piano and he is, of course, excellent but I will be intrigued to see what happens when the piece is scored for a small ensemble.
Finally there’s the central dramatic problem. I think we all know that the State abuses its powers and does terrible things to innocent people in the name of Security. Anybody who doesn’t know that isn’t likely to be at an opera performance by Against the Grain at least. So 90 minutes of dismal stories feels a bit like preaching to the choir. I feel, it needs more. A resolution? A way forward? A statement of resistance? Maybe just more interaction? I don’t know but, for me, something is missing. I should add that this was not the universal reaction in the post show discussion but it was shared by at least some others.
It’s a first workshop and it’s promising. With some musical elaboration and “plot” tweaks this could be a very interesting piece. I look forward to the next iteration.
Image credits: Poster – Dmitry Bondarenko (Illustration) and Eitan Zohar (Designer), Photos – Darryl Block