“This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but with a whimper,” reads TS Eliot’s line projected onto the wall behind singer Heloïse Werner during this ambitious one-woman meditation on mortality and mourning. The show itself is not quite either. Intriguing and sincere, it nevertheless doesn’t quite have the invention necessary to justify a take on such broad and challenging material.
The operetta, written by Jonathan Woolgar and directed by Emily Burns, takes the form of three abstract acts addressing three deaths: the end of the universe, the end of humanity and a single personal loss. Werner’s strong, sharp voice sirens out wordless noises and snatches of lyrics, more an atonal soundscape than anything narrative. Her face contorts with pain and her voice quavers as the show moves from the mind-bogglingly big through to the excruciatingly personal.
It’s a neat idea, but sadly it has the sense of a piece not thought through terribly far beyond that one idea. The sheer scope of moving from the heat death of the universe through to what seems to be a very personal reflection on loss needs a great deal of innovation on the musical or performance side of things to match. As it is, its reach seems to exceed its grasp. The quotations like the one above projected onto the wall on the theme of endings and death show a literate imagination, but that risks it becoming an academic exercise to show how clever the writer is.
Were the music fresh and original, this would sit more comfortably. But to my ear the atonal sounds, though delivered with impressive clarity and control, nevertheless are melodically uninteresting, failing to evoke enough difference between the sections of cosmic magnitude and personal grief to make it work as a three-act structure. The iron reverberations both from Werner’s voice and her distinctive use of percussion are certainly arresting, but set to text at times verging on the gnomic side it is difficult to see in aid of what, quite.
This is not to say the piece is without pleasures: an amusing “bluesy” interlude shows a side of self-awareness I wish Woolgar had shown more of. Indeed, in a conceptual piece about mourning a certain levity can be a boon, and when you’re asked as an audience member to ruminate on Carl Sagan quotations about the cosmos you’re liable to wonder if it might be taking itself a bit too seriously.
This is on the edge of being a very successful piece, but needs a little more time to mature and mellow before gaining the grandeur it reaches for. Certainly go and see it for Werner’s skill as a performer, but in terms of a vehicle for her talents, this piece about the end feels far from definitive.
Scenes from the End is playing at the Tristan Bates Theatre until December 10.