I was so much looking forward to The Weather Man triple bill at Theatre Severn on the night of 11th July. Having already had a taste of the first item, Arjen Mulder’s fine essay In Praise of Darwin’s Mistakes read by Geoffery Streatfield, I knew I was in for a rare treat there. And so it proved. ‘My  soliloquy’, is how Arjen himself described it. A good word for what was more lyrical than a lecture: a lively, challenging thinking-piece delivered with the professional skill of a very good actor, without any of the ideas and resoning being drowned in stagecraft.

I am delighted to see that the full text of Arjen Mulder’s essay is now on the Shift-Time website. It’s worth downloading and reading. Not just reading through once: there are so many thoughts, ideas and challenges packed into the words that it takes more than one or two readings for them to unfold fully in your mind. Try reading it out loud, as we heard it read so effectively on Saturday night – read it to your partner, to the cat, to the bathroom mirror. Savour it slowly and carefully, at a walking pace. And then take time to think.

Follow the Voice, a short film by Marcus Coates is funny, fascinating and very noisy. Everyday noises: human and mechanical, speed up, slow down and evolve into the natural sounds of beasts, birds and other creatures, which themselves speed or slow. To compliment the soundtrack, everyday things and people in the everyday world. Recognisably the world of Shrewsbury, for those of us who live here, but not a tourist view of the town. It could be any town, anywhere in Britain. Kids in the playground, a supermarket checkout, an office printer, a pedestrian crossing…. The visuals too are speeded or slowed. The effect of the bizzare sounds and the temporal distortion is to make familiar sights very strange, to bring out the details we take for granted – and above all to make them funny. (I loved the way the food shifted and jiggled about as went along the conveyor to the checkout.) Some food for thought and a fresh viewpoint, but this is not a difficult, deadly serious piece of work: it’s warm and human and full of broad humour. Light, loud, crazy and terrific fun. (Read more about it here.)

I wish that the film had been shown at the beginning of the evening. It would have been a perfect starter, light and amusing, leaving the audience ready for the rich meat of Arjen Mulder’s essay. As it was, the noise and humour of the film washed away the feast of ideas far too soon. We went out into the interval relaxed and laughing, but no longer thinking.

* * *

I deliberately did not want to find out anything about the Opera North production in advance. The Weather Man, by John Binias and Paul Clarke provided the second half of the evening. A chamber opera for spoken voice, baritone and string quartet. I wanted to come to it fresh, without any preconceptions. I know that I’ve never really managed to appreciate opera, particularly not modern opera, and I was hoping that this might be a first for me, one I could understand and enjoy. I did try, I really did. But I failed. To me it was mostly tiring noise. The string quartet (conducted by Dominic Wheeler) working hard, but producing a largely tuneless soundscape, the male voice singing (Robert Poulton) and the female voice narrating (Sarah Belcher) often drowning each other out or being drowned out by the strings. As a visual accompaniment, we had Robert Poulton moving some chairs around. Why? Everyone gave their best: singer, narrator, musicians, conductor all working tirelessly and professionally. But I was lost at sea. I’m sorry, Opera North, I’m obviously a Philistine. If this was great music, I can only apologise.

I have a huge respect for Adimaral FitzRoy, all too often still overshadowed by Charles Darwin, as he was in his own lifetime after the voyage, and yet who was the intelligent, responsible and innovative captain of the Beagle, who achieved the impossible, in a very small vessel in the most dangerous and inhospitable waters, battling deep depression, the elements and enemies in high places. A man who did so much more besides, and got so little thanks for it. A tragic genius and a great man. While the narration of The Weather Man provided the gist of his life, it was hard to hear and to understand, and there seemed to be a slightly mocking tone throughout. I came away as sadly disappointed by The Weather Man, both as music and as biography, as I was utterly delighted by the two pieces that preceeded it. I wonder what other people thought of this opera?


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