Bold, innovative, and fun, this student production of Edith Sitwell and William Walton’s music-poetic work, Façade: an Entertainment effectively captures the style and originality that defines this early 1920s piece. Led by conductor-performer Leo Zagorac, this production, its players and speakers, grasp and hold the audience’s attention throughout, with captivating performances and skilful musicianship that duel and converse to create a truly unique soundscape.
Sitwell’s experimental and unusually rhythmic poetry are voiced by three speakers who take turns, occasionally coming together to perform in twos or threes, to recite the poetry. All three speakers performed these difficult and often complex poems with considerable clarity and artistry, however, Zagorac particularly stood out, in part because of his impressive multitasking of conducting and performing, and also because of his terrifically charismatic and commanding performance, throwing himself fully into the drama and absurdity of the poems. The speakers all managed to successfully work with the music in creating a complex and interesting combination of sounds. All three speakers seemed to be thoroughly enjoying themselves and this enjoyment spread to the audience, allowing us to understand that though the poetry might be hard to understand, that does not make it any more difficult to enjoy.
The musical players, arranged in a semi-circle facing the audience throughout the performance, began slightly trepidatiously but quickly sharpened up and remained clear and in control for the rest of the performance, accompanying and sometimes leading the pieces. The combination of the percussive voice of the speakers and the skilful musicianship of the players worked brilliantly, creating a sound more exciting and unique than what any of us are used to listening to on the radio. All the musicians played well, though multi-instrumentalists Brooke Christiansen and Sam Maughan particularly stood out for their clarity and skill which was demonstrated most pleasingly in occasional duet-like combinations of the clarinet and flute.
The stage is left bare, apart from the players and speakers, in this production with no use of props or stage design; this minimalism is largely effective, leaving the music and poetry to take centre stage. The music and poetry are accompanied by colourful lighting that often reflects the mood of the piece, turning red at one point during a more tense and dark musical moment. The minimalism of the staging is continued in the costumes of the players and speakers most of whom wear black with a colourful or patterned top. This effectively accompanied the overall look of the stage (black but with colourful lighting) and seemed to nod at the fun and absurdity of the poems, while also letting the pieces speak for themselves without distractions. However, it would have been nice to have had more uniformity as some of the players were missing the splash of colour in their outfits.
The choice to be minimalistic in its design in this production is understandable given the largely audible nature of the piece and its complexities and originality that could be overawed by bold costumes or overzealous set design. However, it would have added a new dimension to the production, I believe, if there were a more visual aspect to the performance, for example by having a simple decorated backdrop that would bring colour to such a colourful performance and reflect the fun and artistry of the piece.
Overall, this ambitious production of Sitwell and Walton’s experimental music-poetic work impressively captured the absurdity and artistry that reportedly shocked and divided audiences when it was first publicly performed in 1923. During this performance, Sitwell was said to have hidden behind a curtain while reciting her poems out of fear of the indignant audience. The triumph of this production then may be in its ability to not alienate the audience but welcome them in to Sitwell’s joyfully bizarre world. There is no need for the creative team of this production to coyly hide behind a curtain.
Image credit: Leo Zagorac, Durham Student Theatre