‘I have no idea what it’s about,’ said the man in front of me when the applause died down at the end of the first act. His wife – or at least the woman he was with – lent on his shoulder.
‘I’m not sure that we came to the right thing!’ she laughed.
If they had been expecting a straight Mozart concert their bewilderment was understandable. As the curtain came down the stage was flooded with water – and Ibiza bubbles – and singer Claus Hempler had been crawling around with a bath on his back. Martin Linn had sung a solo whilst crushed inside a glass dome like the one used by a scientist in Joseph Wright of Derby’s ‘Experiment on a Bird’.
And that’s only two of the chaotically unexpected events that had taken place on stage at the Barbican during the Betty Nansen Teatret production of Mozart Undone. It is grand anarcho-comedic-performance-art of the sort that you might see on a smaller-scale in one of the madder artist run spaces. It’s got hints of Dada – no, not hints, great big pelican wing dollops of the stuff. For long periods water drips or gushes from the ceiling – it’s what the Cabaret Voltaire must have been like when Zurich had a particularly bad storm. I haven’t even mentioned the Georgian dandies – wearing wigs made of shirts they had been wearing – playing electric guitar, Louise Hart dancing in a huge mirror dress reminiscent of the costumes in Seven Samurai. Or the men covered with paint, the women with faces obliterated by mud.
The production by Danish director Nickolaj Cederholm is based on Mozart in the same way that the British democratic system is based on the Athenian model of 500BC. That is, it is, but it’s not immediately recognisable. There are similarities but it’s not the same thing. Mozart, but not Mozart… is what is created in Cederholm’s hands. He stages theatre concerts, by taking music, chopping it about, resplicing it and stitching it back together. Previously he has attempted this style with The Beach Boys and The Beatles, Bob Dylan and Beethoven.
Even though there is no large orchestra – there are only eleven people on stage in total – this is not a stripped back MozartUnplugged. Rather it is Mozart very much pluggedIn, with drums and guitar solos, jazz piano and special effects out of zombie movies. The music is so disguised, rebooted and rearranged as to be only partially recognisable. But Mozart Undone isn’t really about the music. Mozart is the basis of the songs, which have been picked from Le Nozze di Figaro, Die Zauberflote and his other classics, but the lyrics are not what the original librettists wrote down – unless they have been very badly mistranslated until now. Don Giovanni’s Fin Ch’han Vino has become a jazzed up paean to Italian food performed excitedly on the piano by Martin Gris. Most things are performed with exuberance, especially Soren Bigum’s 18th century guitar solos. Mozart provides the genesis of each song, but Mozart Undone is really a spectacle, a performance art musical.
Add in acrobatics, exotic costumes and some dressing up as birds and you’ve got an idea of what to expect.
But only an idea.
There is water everywhere, gushing from the ceiling, filling baths and buckets and being thrown around the stage with enough vigour to splash the front row. What does it represent? Usually water is life-giving, but it can also be a problem, as has been shown recently with the extensive flooding in England. We need water, but we don’t need too much of it. Are the cast fighting it, or wasting it? Should we be wasting water for entertainment whilst millions have no clean drinking water? It could drain off stage and be recycled, but as at one point Lotte Andersen tries to bury a still-alive Hempler with shovel-loads of gravel, and it all turns to mud, I don’t think that’s likely.
If you are a purist who likes to follow the score as the orchestra plays then this art-school rock/orchestral hybrid isn’t for you. You’ll probably walk out in a dreadful huff and write a strongly-worded letter to the Barbican. But if you like experimentation and something very different maybe you’ll be giving the cast a standing ovation, as they received when I visited.
Mozart Undone is on at the Barbican until March 1st.
ps. Cleaning up after a musical performance normally involves sweeping the floor and checking the lights are off. Good luck to the Barbican cleaners this week…