As I approached Hackney Wick for an improbable Tuesday night double-bill of 24 Italian Songs and Arias and Diana Is Dead! I struggled to recall ever feeling quite so intrigued and uncertain about what to expect from an evening of theatre. But entering the hazy, atmospheric Yard Theatre feels almost like passing through a portal into a welcoming, if homespun, new realm of possibility. Suddenly, the combination of an opera “about failure… by two award-winning failures” and an “explosion of the myth” surrounding Princess Diana’s death using “noise and hammers” seems not only conceivable, but also oddly appropriate.
As it transpires, 24 Italian Songs and Arias is a somewhat forced yet entertaining deliberation on failure interspersed with arias from the eponymous collection. Exploring, primarily, the experiences of inventive, charismatic performance artist Brian Lobel and accomplished soprano Gweneth Ann-Rand, the show focuses on their rejections as prospective musicians and what they have learned from these setbacks, about themselves and society. One intimate monologue in which Lobel discusses the effects of binary narratives of success and failure on his own ability to express his personality, creativity and sexuality, is especially courageous.
For the most part, however, the performance is characterised by its playfulness and irreverence towards traditional opera. Most notably an on-stage TV displaying mischievous Monty Python-esque subtitles is cleverly used to engineer an impudent dialogue with the performers’ words and actions, puncturing any moments that threaten to become too heavy. At its best, this kept the production fresh and accessible to audience members unfamiliar with opera. On the other hand, the exchanges between songs regularly produced moments of stilted tackiness and acting which could have rivalled the piano in a ‘most wooden performance’ contest.
Despite the whiff of amateurishness, all this did serve to create an inclusive atmosphere in which the arias at the show’s centre could be performed with a smile and appreciated without pretension. Particular highlights included Naomi Felix’s poignant ‘O Del Mio Dolce Ardor’ and the beautiful harmonies of a group rendition of ‘Amarilli, Mia Bella’ in which the audience are invited to participate. Overall, I was left with the sense that I had stumbled into a casual, spontaneous singalong with some marvellously talented musicians held together more by enthusiasm than artistic design.
After a short break the audience returned for FK Alexander’s Diana Is Dead! We are soon engulfed in an almost hypnotic reel of media imagery of Princess Diana accompanied by loud techno music overdubbed with recordings of Diana describing her feelings and fears. As the repetitive images and music became increasingly distorted, on stage we are treated to Diana (FK Alexander) spitting apple onto plates and into glasses before repeatedly smashing them with the promised hammer. At a push, this apparent reference to her struggle with bulimia could suggest this sensory bombardment is attempting to evoke both the debilitating all-encompassing influence of mental health and the relentlessness of the media spotlight. Or maybe not.
Either way, a tech problem meant that, perhaps fortunately, the performance had to be abandoned after ten trance-like minutes. This did, at least, allow Diana to storm dramatically off-stage, quite possibly the highlight of the segment we did get to see.
Despite this abrupt end, The Yard Theatre retains its cheerful, inclusive ambience that makes such an usual night possible in the first place. The announcement that the evening’s entertainment was to be cut short was met with sympathetic applause and a merry relocation to the bar. Meanwhile, rumours that Diana Is Dead! was sabotaged on the orders of the royal family remain unverified.
24 Italian Songs and Arias and Diana Is Dead! are playing The Yard Theatre until 19 January 2019. For more information and tickets, see the Yard Theatre website.