Brighton Fringe 2017
As I start to write this review, a night and half a day have gone by since I saw ‘Collapse’ – and I’m still reeling from the experience. I can’t recall any production I’ve seen that left me feeling so battered at the finish, smashed back into my pew at St Andrew’s Church.
Sweet Venues have brought over a number of European shows for this Fringe Festival, and it was a brilliant decision to place this Dutch production inside the church on Waterloo Street. St Andrews is tall inside, and cavernous, and the marble columns and surfaces produce wonderful echoes as part of the building’s acoustics.
A church is of course a kind of temple, and a temple is very much at the centre of the story of Cassandra. She was a princess, the daughter of King Priam, the ruler of Troy, but she was also a prophetess, with the gift of foretelling the future.
With one hitch. Cassandra had been given this power by the god Apollo, in exchange for sex – but Cassandra had reneged on her part of the bargain, and so in revenge the god made it such that nobody ever believed her. She warned of the destruction of Troy by the Greek army led by Agamemnon, and at the war’s end she was carried back to Mycenae as his concubine. When she got there, she once again foresaw bloody violence she could do nothing to prevent, and she and Agamemnon were both slaughtered by the King’s vengeful wife.
But that was later – we are still in Troy when we meet Cassandra at St Andrews.
Brass. That was my initial impression when the lights came up. Great oblong sheets of brass, much higher than a man. Two of them standing vertical – one right at the front of the stage, the second at the rear – with a third one horizontal, making the front face of something like a bar counter, halfway to the back. The lights smashing into them from the front made them glare brightly – hard on the eyes – like sheets of gold.
Or bronze. Remember that Troy was a Bronze-Age city. The weapons and armour in Homer’s ‘Iliad’ are made of glittering bronze; but they had brass too, and gold in profusion. There was a constant percussive sound, a soft rhythmic drumbeat, as the show started, with a man and a woman standing behind the horizontal counter. Then the drumbeat got louder and more insistent, and the woman moved to the brass sheet at the front. There were two microphones hanging down at the front, on long leads from a bar high above, and the woman began singing into one of them.
“Kee Kee – Ka Ka – Ko Ko – Koo” … “Kee Kee – Ka Ka – Ko Ko – Koo”
A repetitive set of sounds, over and over, in a reasonably high pitch. While she sang, the man at the counter fiddled with what must have been some kind of sound loop machine, so that the woman’s voice multiplied, layer upon layer, to become a whole host of singers. Overlapping iterations of the same voice mixed in with echo effects created on the machine and the real-life echoes from the church’s own acoustics. The effect was unique, quite unearthly – I’ve never heard anything like it.
It was Karlijn Hamer, a young woman with rich reddish hair, dressed in a long black blouse over black leggings. As she sang, her head moved side to side, up and down, in jerky movements that were rather birdlike. The mythical Cassandra is supposed to have had red hair, too, so the illusion was almost perfect. Hamer was the performer out front, but I have to mention Mathijs de Valk, head nodding to the rhythm as he operated the sound loops – he worked perfectly with the singer to bring in echoes and tones at just the right point.
‘Battered’ is the word I used at the beginning, and it’s really the only word that describes the effect of this performance. Awestruck, too. ‘Awe’ has its roots in the Greek word ‘Achos‘ – fear or distress – and that’s what Cassandra was experiencing as she saw her dreadful vision of Troy’s destruction coming true. It wasn’t just Karlijn Hamer’s voice – her whole body shook with emotion, her mouth distended as the notes came louder and louder and her eyes stared intensely, now up at the heavens, now at us in the temple in front of her. The intensity of the singing, its sheer loudness as well as its passion, combined with the glare of the light on the shimmering brass making us screw up our eyes, left me overwhelmed.
Eventually she stopped singing and collapsed, exhausted, sitting on the floor in front of the brass sheet. She took the other microphone and began softly, sadly, to give us Cassandra’s thoughts –
“Here I am, Cassandra.
And this is my city under ashes.
And these are my prophet’s staff and ribbons.
And this is my head full of doubts.”
The words were ‘A Soliloquy for Cassandra’, by Wislawa Szymborska. I didn’t know it, but I asked later, so thanks for that, too, Karlijn. It lasted a few minutes, and the last lines are –
“It turns out I was right.
But nothing has come of it.
And this is my robe, slightly singed.
And this is my prophet’s junk.
And this is my twisted face.
A face that didn’t know it could be beautiful.”
She was sitting side-on against the brass, and as she spoke these last words I could see the mottled reflection of her face in the sheet’s stained surface. The blotched likeness of the beautiful woman seemed to sum up perfectly all that Cassandra had suffered.
But there was more to come. After the city was taken, Cassandra was raped by Ajax, one of the Greek leaders, in the temple of Athena. As the legend has it, he took her so brutally that he knocked the goddess’ statue off its plinth. Athena was outraged – she caused the statue to shriek so loudly that the temple was shaken to its foundations. So Hamer gave us more singing – though bellowing might be closer to the truth of it, waves of sound smashing over us as she seemed to re-enact the violence of the slaughter of the city’s inhabitants, and of her own assault. The two microphones hung down on long leads, as I’ve mentioned, and at one point Hamer slumped forward, held erect by just the wires. She looked like a puppet – but then Cassandra had always been a puppet of the gods …
There had been a euphonium sitting on the stage throughout ‘Collapse’. Another brass element to the glittering set, and I’d wondered what it was for. At the close of the piece, when the sound and the fury had died away, the lights dimmed their brassy glare and Hamer picked up the instrument and began, not to play, but to hold it softly and sing into the mouthpiece.
The stage was dark, just the woman picked out by a side light, her murmurings modulated by the euphonium’s brass coils. The modern euphonium is a descendant of the sixteenth century ‘Serpent’, a coiled brass instrument giving the same soft tone. I remembered that the legends said that Cassandra got her prophesies of the future, from serpents whispering in her ear as she slept on the floor of the temple.
A beautiful touch, a perfect detail to round off Karlijn Hamer’s portrait of Cassandra, in this truly Outstanding production.