Sweeney Todd preview: ‘flair’

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We’re all familiar with Elvet. We all know its bleak, nondescript exterior well; know its crowded corridors and capacious lecture halls, tall vending machines and peeling varnished wood. But what we didn’t all know, didn’t dare to imagine, was how two claustrophobic seminar rooms, seated deep in the bowls of a wintry Durham darkness can become culturally transcendent by the loud mellifluous tones and arching, paced footsteps of Durham University Light Opera Group (DULOG). A tentative twist of the door-handle, followed by vague murmurings of ‘I’m with Palatinate’ landed me at centre of the brightly lit room, the unwitting subject of flitting glares and hushed conversation as the Director, Qasim Salam, introduced himself, then motioned for the rehearsal to resume.

Now, any showing of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street’has to be conscious of having a pretty rich legacy; there’s a lot of ideas to mine from, but equally, a precedence of excellence which Qasim will be hard-pressed to match. He’s got a heritage of his own however, nine shows, making him one of the most experienced Directors in Durham. The play, originally produced on Broadway in 1979, details the return of the wronged Benjamin Barker under the spurious guise of the eponymous Sweeney Todd. It’s two acts of diabolical twists, turns and realizations, during which Todd embarks on a maniacal and unsettling streak of murders, for the auxiliary purpose of filling Mrs. Lovett’s pies, hunting the judge who exiled him 15 years beforehand. Absurd, visceral and haunting are all words easily associated with the storyline, but similarly, some elements are incongruously comic, allowing a well-rounded, fast-paced performance by the cast.

The characters may be read as representing obsession, hyperbolizing the blight of the human condition in turn becoming three-dimensional, sympathetic creations. Qasim’s vision involves highlighting how ‘very human and complex’ they really are, and thus skirts the dance of traditional musicals in lieu of a proper, psychological address. It’s not the people who are the menace in Todd, the objects denote the true obsession; that’s what’s terrifying, that’s what’s need to stand out (Qasim, paraphrased). The audience should be dragged into the narrative, almost forcefully, and so any light hearted ‘sing-song’ joviality is overshadowed by a genuine portrayal of legitimate, painfully human emotions.

DULOG are set to realise the play’s potential with this staging, actualising the ‘real’ inside of a conscientiously ‘fictitious’ performance.  The original plot compounded elements from a multitude of sources, including Jacobean tragedy and The Count of Monte Cristo. These provided the basis against which  80% would be set to music, elevating the psychological disintegration of the protagonist as he falls from innocent to murderer. All in, it’s got the checklist of a masterpiece, and the bloody coalition between a newly devised “gypsy aesthetic” and unhinged screaming lends itself to a memorable, if slightly harrowing, evening.

As for what we can expect, well, its predictably a bit under wraps, but we know that the plot isn’t going to change, and that the setting is still ‘Victorian-esque’, if with added elements of ambiguous ‘funk’. The story remains rooted within Victorian England, even though they’ve done away with the traditional white, red, and black chromatic and replaced it with a bright, ostentatious scheme. The staging is exciting too, but a limited budget has meant a lot of creative license has been taken by necessity, either way, it’s certainly set to work. The stage is a rubrics cube of platforms and levels, producing a deep, three-dimensional feel, presumably to emulate the workings of the psyche.

Qasim confessed that blackouts will be avoided whenever possible – ‘I f***ing hate blackouts, quote me on it’, so artistically, there should be a lot of effortless flow. That’s the idea, at least. The talent behind it all have certainly been hard at work, too. On the day I braved the tiny rehearsal space afforded to them, four hours already elapsed since they began rehearsals and this was set continue for another four, lasting until 9:30. This, apparently, is a pretty standard shift and the three-and-a-half-week time span makes nightly rehearsals requisite. In such a short time span you’d expect for there to be a few issues, but when I enquired, as was to what they were more specifically, I received a non-disclosive laugh from the pair of Directors (Ellie Jones, Co-Director). ‘In-joke?’ I ask. ‘In-nightmare,’ they reply. Casting seemed to be the most evident trouble, with 123 applicants for 24 places, making it more competitive than admission to Cambridge!

 With the cast list decided, the direction then had the trouble of turning ‘music theatre students’ into ‘actors’; this required proper characterisation workshops and such like, ‘It was a challenge, but you could tell who was who from the off’: everyone needed to be on form for the show, and sometimes that requires work from the ground up (Qasim, paraphrased).

has also been working tirelessly as Musical Director, mitigating the main direction being self-professedly ‘tone death’ and many a session has reportedly been spent ‘clapping out’ the songs. The Band are ready to hold up the musical portion of the show, admittedly quite a large portion, but with Alex in charge of this too, the two sides should interlock brilliantly. For the last month, there’s been two rehearsal spaces running simultaneously, filled with faces running with sweat; that they’ve been working hard is evident to anyone, commitment and optimism are scribbled across every face!  Happily, there’s been real success in all areas and from what I saw, we’re in for one hell of a show. Sweeney Todd has a huge cult-following, placing a lot of pressure on this 70-strong team, but when these guys pull it off, it’ll be with flare, finesse and originality. I’ve literally just bought my ticket.

‘Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street’ will be shown at The Assembly Rooms Theatre from Wednesday, 16th November until Saturday, 19th November at 19:30. Book your tickets here.

Photograph: DULOG

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