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Brighton Festival 2018

The String Quartet’s Guide to Sex and Anxiety

The Heath Quartet plus four actors. 

Genre: Classical and Shakespeare, Live Music, Music, Spoken Word, Theatre

Venue: Theatre Royal Brighton


Low Down

A melange of music, spoken word and performance, musing on different types of anxiety and depression. With four actors and four musicians, it’s a sting quartet for words and music, created and directed by Spanish director Calixto Bieito.


The show opened by exploring the subject of melancholy, drawing on text from a wide variety of sources, includingThe Anatomy of Melancholy and W.H Auden’s The Age of Anxiety, while the music is drawn from the work of two composers; Ligeti and Beethoven. Subtitles in a large red electronic display helpfully reveal where the readings are from and the name of the piece and composer. 

The piece starts out like a nightmare about playing in a school orchestra – chairs are stacked up high and a forest of music stands. The musicians look miserable, arriving to a piece of text written by Oxford scholar Robert Burton in 1621, in which melancholy is described as a disease of the imagination, as the four actors wearing muted tones of black, white, fawn and grey enter the stage. The quartet then began to play the Ligeti string quartet no. 2 (allegro nervoso) – which begins with a pizzicato attack then moves on to tremulous top end of the bow work, punctuated by the music stand trembling of the actors. 

From OCD to existential angst, this show covers the gamut of anxiety, but there are moments of humour right from the start as actor Nick Harris lists his anxieties about the mundane – worrying about his finances and work, and listing all the therapies he’s tried in a funny and well-observed manner reminiscent of a Woody Allen film. His clothes and appearance are a mess, with his elbow patches never actually covering his elbows. Later he talks about his sexual excesses when coming off his Zoloft medication, which again is amusing while sounding like it was someone’s actual experience. 

Maired McKinleys’ character is worried about her sexual technique and there is some very explicit dialogue that is pornographic, yet devoid of titillation and feeling more like a stressed educational lecture, as she wonders whether cutting her hair short will make oral sex with her husband more visually enjoyable for him. 

The string quartet glide seamlessly between the five movements of the Ligeti piece, led by Oliver Heath on violin, all four musicians stand, except for Christopher Murray on cello, who is seated on a raised platform. 

As well as mental health, anxiety about sex. Ligeti’s music is an angst-causing nervous tense work, while Beethoven’s is initially cathartic.

Sometimes the characters relate to each other, sometimes to the audience. Actor Cathy Tyson is the last to speak, recounting a tale of a man who killed a child in a terrible car accident. Tyson’s character builds on grief – ‘what’s the point’ – as she explore’s people in pain and the subsequent mental health issues. 

Harris’ character speaks to us all when discussing how he has an affirmation to get up at 6am but doesn’t manage it until 8am.

Then the musicians come to the front, away from the music stands as a shockingly loud crash breaks the tension as the stack of chairs collapse signifying the transition into the Beethoven string quartet in F minor.  Although this musical piece is known for being dark and agitated, it is a much more familiar and traditional sound than the Ligeti. The actors continue to struggle with their music stands as relationships fall apart and there is a tragic suicide. 

It was a bold attempt to juxtapose the music of two very different composers against a series of text-based readings and live performance. It was refreshing to see the musicians on stage and performing as part of the action, rather than being hidden away in their more usual role of accompanying live theatre. The two pieces played by the string quartet were turbulent and lent a great sense of emotional turmoil and urgency to the dilemmas and anxieties being suffered by the characters onstage. The whole effect was slightly chaotic, full of angst and at times uncomfortable to watch and listen to, and yet sometimes there were smiles of recognition from the audience as they related to the portrayals of their own anxieties. It’s a show that demands concentration but pays dividends in doing so.