Brian Friel's latest work, Performances, resurrects composer Leoš Janácek in the present day to be interviewed by a graduate student about the love letters he wrote to a much younger woman and how this unconsummated obsession inspired his second string quartet, Intimate Letters. If it's true that all art aspires to the condition of music, it's more conscious in Friel's work than most, and this 65-minute chamber piece is constructed around a performance of the quartet in question. The trouble is, it doesn't work. In fact, much as it pains me to say so, it doesn't come anywhere near working.
Patrick Mason's production, for Dublin's Gate Theatre during the city's theatre festival, can scarcely be faulted. Joe Vanek's set is spacious without seeming sterile; Ion Caramitru and Niamh Linehan are both skilled actors; the Alba String Quartet perform the main musical piece beautifully. The problem is the damned material. It can't decide what it wants to be, and whatever it does want, it won't let itself be it.
On the one hand, there's the whimsy. No mention at all of the oddity of Janácek being alive in the present; he takes mild exception whenever student Anezka blithely refers to his death in 1928, but is barely less casual about it himself. He is playful and digressive, and this aspect is accentuated in the laughingly flighty performance style adopted by Caramitru. But you get the feeling that this is a distraction, and crucially the feeling arrives rather sooner than it's supposed to.
For this strain bounces up and down against grand earnestness: earnestness about music that has the characters taking turns to sound as if they're reciting a learned monograph, earnestness about emotions that has Anezka in particular sounding like a moderately high-calibre romance. But none of it sounds like speech. We know that Janácek is being disingenuous when he claims that his beloved Kamila was simply a small-town wife elevated in his fancy into the muse necessary to drive his work: we can hear the truth in the music and see it in his face as he listens to it. But we don't much care about the composer's own "performance" in this respect. Early on, Janácek refers to his musical doodles; by Friel's standards, this is merely a dramatic doodle.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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