Review: Witch at the Jacqueline du Pré24th January 2018
The silence beneath the noise is the guiding undercurrent of Witch, an original production created by the students of the Opera and Theatre course, and directed by Jonny Danciger. Whilst 35 minutes in an office may not be what you would expect from a self-titled opera, the exploration of what being a woman in the corporate world can entail provides plenty of scope for a theatrical narrative, one that is sharply resonant in a world in which questions of sexism and female identity abound. Composed by Toby Young, the music of Witch constructs a communal voice, pointing to the troubling truth about female experience; with Helen, the protagonist, remaining completely silent throughout, we are reminded that in the midst of scandal, the person in question may never actually have the chance to speak.
The exploration of what being a woman in the corporate world can entail provides plenty of scope for a theatrical narrative, one that is sharply resonant in a world in which questions of sexism and female identity abound.
A busy set sprawls over the stage, replicating an office with desks, chairs, filing cabinets and the usual paraphernalia. A doorframe divides the rest of the office from that of Daniel, the boss, an effective reminder of the disjointedness between the world of those in charge and those who work for them. This busyness turns almost to claustrophobia as the music begins and the stage is populated both by the workers of the office as well as the chorus. The audience projects this pervading discomfort onto Helen as she starts her new job at the office. Her colleagues speculate about her relationship with Daniel, growing ever more hostile. What is possibly most striking is the use of technology, with the chorus filming Helen at various points, resulting in an uncomfortably close livestream of her face projected onto the background. This choral witch-hunt bears an uncanny resemblance to experiences of an anonymous public.
The synchronicity of the piece is singular, as music matches physicality. That it was curated and created around the actors, and that each element was intended for the same final product, in conjunction with every other element, prevents the marriage of old and new from being jarring; the intention put into the production ensures that it does not seem that genre is subverted for the sake of subversion. Unfortunately, much of the effect on the night was lost because the music overpowered much of the singing, so much so that even from the front row it was difficult to make out all but the most simple of lyrics (one of the workers “knew she (Helen) was bad”, for example). Other elements, such as the use of props, with the use of lipstick to disfigure Helen as a sign of twisted femininity being particularly salient, ensure that a level of powerful coherence is maintained, but it could not be enjoyed in its full capacity.
Unfortunately, much of the effect on the night was lost because the music overpowered much of the singing, so much so that … it was difficult to make out all but the most simple of lyrics.
The presence of the camera on stage ensures that the problem of gaze is central, although interestingly, it does not seem to address male gaze so much as that of the crowd. The story is largely conveyed by women, with Daniel remaining silent until over halfway through. “At last a change is coming” they sing, addressing the issue of how femininity can truly fit into the office. Their activity in constructing the story puts women at the forefront. Yet, there remains a level of concern with what this says about women, although this may be entirely unintentional. Whilst raising the problem of the crowd in modern witch-hunts is key, the crowd here is overwhelmingly female.
Ultimately, Witch does draw out some serious problems in the way that we view scandals and that narratives are constructed about real people. Being the production that it is, it is not a completely polished, but does offer intriguing insight into how opera can address current issues, and is worth seeing for these possibilities that it suggests.