I’m sure some of our readers are too young to vividly remember the devastating 9/11 attacks on New York’s Twin Towers but would have undoubtedly since seen or heard about them in one form or another. ENO has teamed up with director Deborah Warner, Tansy Davies and Nick Drake to remind us of this immensely sad atrocity. There’s a cruel irony in Between Worlds that certainly doesn’t need to be present in order to make its subject matter any more viciously tragic or painful but nonetheless, the fates of five people stuck in a tower with a big fat, “I shouldn’t have been here”, certainly packs a punch.
As with many of the company’s productions, Michael Levine’s set is vast and minimal but remains much more effective than an explosion of unnecessary character. Platforms and harnesses are implemented to create the crucial illusion of height, and a backdrop with New York’s skyline initially appears, rippling with colour until it is driven away and replaced by pages upon pages of text. The audience becomes the city; our five characters stare out with awe and appreciation, before events escalate and the ensemble greet us with growing fear and disbelief. Later, the set turns even more stark and the mechanics of back of house are visible as firefighters seek to rescue those trapped inside. Another scene sees the mother (Susan Bickley) of one of the five trapped characters in her home when the news greets her. It is spectacularly lit by Jean Kalman and Kim Brandstrup choreographs an acrobat who, upside down, holds a collection of branches to create an almost eerily tranquil and contrasting change. It’s such subtle simplicity that ultimately makes this inspiring.
Davies’s score has a constant feeling of foreboding. Is that too obvious a tone to set for such a piece? Perhaps, but generally it works. The sopranos in the ensemble signify the most dire and alarming of events in Between Worlds and though it is often difficult to distinguish what the ensemble as a whole are singing, the voices set the highs and lows at a great pace. Drake’s text often adds a bit of light as Clare Presland’s Realtor exclaims the frustrations of having an overly hyper young son and William Morgan complains about his fear of heights (“yes, I know, ironic!”)
Should this event have been made into opera? I’ve heard both sides of the argument and wholeheartedly I believe this is the sort of material that ENO should constantly place in their repertoire. It is fresh and never before, especially with this company, have I seen such an incredible collectiveness. The acting is outstanding, especially from Presland and Rhian Lois’s Younger Woman and aesthetically it is almost genius. Andrew Watts’s Shaman is a somewhat ambiguous character as he stands in the very rafters of the building, only descending once to take away Eric Greene’s Janitor. Whilst his purpose is unclear, it heavily contributes to the eeriness and quirkiness of Between Worlds.
As the auditorium’s lights fade in the final moments and the flicker of candles lit in memory of those who lost their lives remain, a long and gentle albeit stricken hush can be felt. Opera shouldn’t have to be constant revivals. If it is, how can a new and excited audience be expected to make an appearance? This should be the future and especially for ENO.
Between Worlds is playing at the Barbican until 25 April. For tickets and more information, see the Barbican website. Photo by John Cardasis.