Review: Sonata Movements

An-Ting Chang and her company AT ConcertTheatre are pioneering a new genre of performance. The clue is in the name. In its own words, ConcertTheatre is “a combination form of concert and theatre. Through interweaving, music becomes not just atmospheric underscore, but another language expressed by the musicians – a voice and character in iuts own right, spoken alongside the actors on the same stage.” The aim of this cross-genre style is to allow both separate elements to have more depth, resonance and to open them up for new interpretations.

Sonata Movements is the first company production, presented and co-produced by the Blue Elephant Theatre. The show comprises four movements, each with a distinct atmosphere and theme. Each movement uses existing theatrical text by popular writers (Caryl Churchill, Kenneth Emson, T.S. Eliot and Anton Chekhov), performed in tandem with live classical music works by world-renowned composers (Schubert, Chopin, Prokofiev and Beethoven). Do not be put off by the intellectual-sounding blurb or feel that any prior knowledge of classical music is necessary for the understanding or enjoyment of the movements, as this is simply not the case. The self-sufficient shorts are simplistic in design and content, and yet cover some complex issues; they raise questions about human nature and our relationship with others and our surroundings.

Founder of the company, Chang, is very visible playing piano on stage. Her role in this production switches between a professional accompanying musician and a mischievous character in her own right. The actors on stage find ways to interact with Chang at various key points, suggesting an awareness and acceptance of the music in the lives of the characters. Occasionally they make direct address to Chang to silence her, and at other times seem distracted or annoyed by her presence. This ambiguous relationship is powerful and adds intrigue to the narratives. At times the music felt overbearing or distracting from the main action, however there were plenty of beautiful moments where the music and the acting either worked together or provided dramatic tension. This genre should not be confused with musical theatre. The actors did not attempt to sing or indeed speak in direct harmony with the music. Cast member Darren Douglas-Letts stood out as the performer with greatest sensitivity to the piano, speaking in flowing, lulling tones not dissimilar to a spoken word artist. I would have liked perhaps to hear more vocal exploration by the whole cast in response to the melodies.

The choice of texts is strong and varied, providing a mixed-bag. We have darkness in Churchill’s Abortion, warm comedy in Emson’s Other People’s Gardens, repressed sexuality in Eliot’s Portrait of A Lady and sombre reflections in Chekhov’s Swan Song. There is something here to please everyone, although my personal favourite was number two. Mary Sheen plays Sylvia, a lonely elderly woman whose chance meetings with schoolboy William allow us to reflect on the communication between generations. Chopin’s melancholic repetitions punctuate and support the text, providing moments of danger, surprise and joy.

The programme is wonderfully detailed, explaining the choices made and elaborating on the connections between the chosen passages and the music. ConcertTheatre is an exciting emerging genre that has a lot of room for further development, but is sure to make an impact. The Blue Elephant Theatre, with its history of supporting cross-genre performance, is a great, intimate location for AT ConcertTheatre’s first full production.

Sonata Movements is playing at the Blue Elephant Theatre until 5 May. For more information and tickets, see the Blue Elephant Theatre’s website. Photo by Dougie Firth.