Shackleton’s Cat is based on the true story of Ernest Shackleton (played by Ashley Mercer) and his expedition to cross the South Pole. Written and directed by Tim Yealland, English Touring Opera are taking this opera around various schools in the UK. This particular showing was in Dulwich College but the young audience consisted of primary school pupils.

Having never seen a live opera I felt excited like some of the children who were also probably seeing an opera for the first time. They kept their eyes fixed on the actors and there was minimal fuss, they sang along with some of the songs and joined in when there was an invitation for participation.

Upon arriving a tad late I was navigated to the room, firstly by the kind receptionist and secondly by the wonderful operatic music and singing. I knew exactly where I was going and followed the sound before I got to see the men creating the sound. As a person who has played an instrument and has a musical ear I paid a lot of attention to the sounds I heard. It was great how a keyboard (James Henshaw), French horn (Jonathan Hassan) and a few percussion instruments (Jonny Raper) could create such an attractive sound; kudos to the musicians and composer Russell Hepplewhite.

As the play went on and I continued to pay attention to the sounds and noticed the visuals I began to question whether I was following the story. I’ve found that many times I don’t get the gist of a story until the end or till I’ve read over my notes (yes, I always take notes) and looked at the programme. I questioned whether I was just slow at understanding storylines or whether they were not made explicitly clear by writers and directors – I don’t fully have the answer yet. When music, dance, poetry or any other art form is involved in a play I can pay more attention to that rather than follow the story. This could also mean that the art forms become a distraction rather than an enhancement to the story.

In the case of Shackleton’s Cat ETO mention that the story is about ‘Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance voyage 100 years ago, which set out to cross the South Pole but failed…’. The play looks at Shackleton and his crew who start their journey in Buenos Aires and go on to the South Pole. Though I knew the overall gist of the story, the finer details that were played out I couldn’t follow. Some bits of information were sung and I found that though the actors performed well the operatic style in general can sometimes muffle lyrics.

Overall I enjoyed the play and its musical renditions and I liked seeing the children’s engagement with the play. The story could have been a little bit clearer maybe if the actors sung a bit slower with just a little more diction so the story wasn’t lost in places. Some extra reading around Ernest Shackleton’s expedition will give more understanding of the story. Some plays require some further research and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. If you’ve never seen an opera it’s definitely worth going to see Shackleton’s Cat.

Shackleton’s Cat played at Dulwich College and is currently on tour until 30 May. For more information and tickets see the English Touring Opera website. Photo by Robert Workman.