Against the Grain Theatre’s presentation of Theatre of Sound’s production of Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle opened last night at the Fleck Dance Theatre. It’s in English translation (by director Daisy Evans) with chamber ensemble and it reimagines the piece as the story of an elderly man caring for a wife who has dementia. What’s extraordinary is that the libretto works extremely smoothly with no changes. The rooms in Bluebeard’s castle are replaced by a trunk with objects that evoke memories from the couple’s long life together. The “torture” of uncertain first love, military service, marriage, children etc. In each scene a silent, younger, Judith (there are three of them representing different ages and life stages) appears until at the end all three are on stage looking at themselves in mirrors. It’s very beautiful and very moving.
There’s a seven piece ensemble which recreates all the colours of Bartók’s score. I think I only missed the grandeur of the big orchestra once, at the opening of the fifth door, but that was way more than compensated for by the opportunity afforded to the singers to inhabit their characters with depth and subtlety. And they did. Gerald Finley as Bluebeard and Charlotte Hellekant as Judith were wonderful. The singing was clear, beautiful and nuanced and the acting, with every gesture clearly visible in the small theatre, did full justice to Daisy Evans carefully researched, subtle production.
If you have had the experience of living with someone with dementia you will recognise the subtle depth of what is going on here. The frustration on both sides sometimes threatening violence and sometimes breaking beyond threatening. The lucid moments and the half memories are all there. And it’s just amazing how a libretto written for a different scenario manages to suggest both what we are actually seeing and what is going on in the characters’ heads.
There’s a vital contribution from the non-singing players here too. Alexis Celestine Wilson, Jamaica Fraser and Josée Young as increasingly older Judiths are subtle and excellent and it really works that they don’t look anything like Charlotte Hellekant or each other. It reinforces the “half-rememberedness” of it all. There are cute cameos too by Cody Black and Bryony Faye Fowler as the couple’s children.
The set design (Adrian Linford) and especially the lighting (Jake Wiltshire) too is clever and effective. It’s just a sitting room but there are many, many lamps which flicker and change intensity to create an atmosphere while still preserving a kind of domesticity.
There’s no pit at the Fleck so the ensemble is on one side off the stage, which is slightly awkward, but it was apparent that conductor Stephen Higgins was communicating extremely well with the singers as well as the instrumentalists. They really did a heroic job getting full value out of Stephen’s reduced arrangement; none more than Holly Kroeker who tripled up on piano, celesta and organ.
This is terrific theatre and really fine music making plus, it’s a chance to see Gerald Finley close up and subtle rather than miles away in a big theatre! There are only two more performances; Friday at 7.30pm and Saturday at 1.30pm. Tickets are available from the Harbourfront box office.
Photo credits: Dahlia Katz