The second of three projected iterations of Against the Grain Theatre’s Bound opened last night at The Great Hall. Version one was staged but in piano score. Last night’s version was sung off music stands but with a chamber ensemble and major changes to the music. It’s going to be interesting to see how the production version, due this time next year shapes up.
For the purposes of this performance the number of prisoners has been reduced to four, the spoken dialogue has been omitted and the voice of The State has a greatly reduced role. The focus is very much on the music and that has come a long way. It’s no longer Handel with a few tweaks by Kevin Lau, it’s more Kevin Lau meets Handel in a dark alley. There are still Handelian arias (i.e basically Handel’s music given new Joel Ivany lyrics) but there is much more music where bits of Handel are reworked; included being electronically sampled and worked into an electronic track that plays either alone or with the live musicians. It creates a dense and complex soundscape from which the familiar melodies emerge almost as a statement of hope. I don’t have an encyclopaedic knowledge of Handel’s vocal works but it did seem that we got more of the English works than the Italian operas which makes sense. The deceptively simple but beautiful tune of, say, As Steals the Morn offers more of a change of mood than a flashy coloratura aria. I would rate this score a real success.
It’s harder to be so sure about the libretto because so much of it was missing last night and the whole plot line really wasn’t there either. I still think there needs to be something resembling a plot, rather than a series of individual stories connected only by the idea of anybody not conforming falling foul of The State. That may emerge in the final version. I did think that reducing the number of characters from seven to four was a good idea. It simplified things and, I thought, made it easier to identify with the characters. Others might argue that a greater variety of characters makes it easier for the audience to find someone to identify with. Again, we’ll see how the final version tackles that issue.
Then there’s the way language is used in the libretto. To reverse Wilfred Owen’s famous aphorism, the Pity is in the Poetry and there isn’t quite enough of the latter. If one is going to build an aria around a couple of lines of text that text has to contain depths of meaning. Essentially banal statements of “The I am strong and I will beat them” variety pall pretty quickly. There are places where this libretto rises above that level; notably Andrew Haji’s aria about what he hopes to achieve in his homeland, but other occasions where, IMHO, it doesn’t. Still, there’s time to look at that.
The performances were very strong. Three of the original performers; Miriam Khalil, David Trudgen and Justin Welsh were back and just as skilled and committed as before. They were joined by Andrew Haji who sang quite beautifully. Everybody seemed quite comfortable transitioning between obviously Handelian music and the newer idiom. There was fine playing from the ensemble and Topher Mokrzewski, conducting, not only created a coherent sound picture from the various musical elements in play but was rather fun to watch.
So there we have it. The music for Bound has come a long way since last year and is now really impressive. We’ll see what happens as focus turns back to plot, dramaturgy and the libretto as the final version comes together. With a bit more progress on that front, the final version of Bound could be very exciting indeed. I also think it’s very brave of the AtG folks to workshop WIP in public like this.
There are two more chances to catch this show; tonight and tomorrow night at 8pm in Longboat Hall at The Great Hall on Queen Street West.
Photo credits: Darryl Block Photography