Beneath Waterloo Station, Silent Opera bring Leos Janacek’s opera, The Cunning Little Vixen to life through an immersive experience. Composed in 1921-23, the libretto was adapted from a serialised novella by Rudolf Tesnohlidek and Stanislav Lolek. The opera premiered at the National Theatre Brno in 1924, and was first performed in England in 1961 by the English National Opera.
Vixen, supported by the ENO, has been transformed by a full orchestral soundscape that is presented to its audiences through headphones as they follow the cast through the tunnels of The Vaults.
Transposed onto the streets of twenty-first century London, Vixen tackles current issues of homelessness and the rising number of missing persons in the UK. As a young female runaway, Vixen is constantly challenged by unwanted sexual advances, and holds her moral rights close to aid her when confronted by recurring instances of rejection and abuse. One day, she is abducted by The Forester, and is taken to his home. Afraid for her safety, she makes her escape, and meets a charming boy soon after. However, she is not as safe as she thought, and a fatal encounter with a crooked policeman concludes her life in a world that seems to have all but deserted her.
A petite girl with long, auburn dreadlocks elbows her way through the crowd. “Follow the girl” commands a voice within the headset, and the audience filter through a makeshift gangway plastered with the faces of missing people. The story unfolds within two separate spaces, and the audience are welcomed into the first by the orchestra, who also double as members of the ensemble. The room is long, bursting with sofas, bean bags, cushions, and stools. Spectators are guided to their seats, roughly, and are squashed together, crowding the open plan kitchen and living area. This is the home of Mr and Mrs Forester.
Designed by Kitty Callister, the setting proved suffocating, and the uncomfortable intimacy with fellow audience members worked well in aligning them with Vixen, the feisty vagabond. However, the second space does not have the same impact as the first, and the action becomes much less engaging as a result. Where the gangway once was, there is now the street outside of the Forester’s home. A street lamp glows dismally above metal dustbins and oil drums, and the audience are seated on a sea of cushions, sleeping bags, and wooden boxes.
Despite clues in the narrative, there is no sense of time passing. This presents little chance for the characters to develop emotionally, and makes it difficult for the audience to create an attachment to them. The placement of the audience also adds to this, as, in this open space, much of the action happens behind the audience, meaning that they have to work very hard to access the story.
The group are talented musicians, but possess less skill as actors. The Vixen, Rosie Lomas, shines vocally. However, her facial expressions lack variation – a criticism which is true of the entire cast. This weakened their performance, especially in such a close environment.
Silent Opera have approached Janacek’s production with a valiant concept. Nonetheless, the performance itself is underwhelming and lacks depth. The ensemble would also do well to be more respectful of their spectators, as repeated episodes of flippancy only distanced the two parties further. The absence of adventure disappointed a promising piece of theatre, something which Director Daisy Evans might consider for future productions.
Vixen is playing at The Vaults Waterloo until 10 June.