Motions of the Heart

Iseult Golden in Motions of the Heart by Eric Fraad and Louisa Young. Photo: Eamonn Doyle

Iseult Golden in Motions of the Heart by Eric Fraad and Louisa Young. Photo: Eamonn Doyle

To the accompaniment of a slow sixteenth-century piece for viols and continuo ('Sit Fast' by Christopher Tye), a young female corpse in white is slowly wheeled on to the main performance area  of the chandeliered and elegant Shaw Room of the National Gallery. In a pool of warm amber, three masked and gowned surgeons with terpsichorean languish remove her heart and ceremoniously offer it to a renowned surgeon (Sir William Harvey) who is of the same vintage as the music. Holding the heart aloft, Sir William disappears as the lugubrious music concludes.

This opening kaleidoscope of imagery and music was but a foretaste of Young and Fraad’s meditation on all things connected with the heart, which, mirroring the four chambers of this most iconic of human organs, examined the heart: Romantic, Anatomical, Sacred and Aesthetic. Given such a huge subject and mixture of styles – musical, textual and genre – it wasn’t altogether surprising that director Eric Fraad decided to break his own precedent to briefly explain what was about to take place. We were informed that this project was fashioned after a seventeenth-century masque, which originally glorified a monarch or some other high worthy. The director explained that this form of entertainment fell into obscurity after Charles I lost his head, adding: “we’re bringing it back”.  Some might argue that the masque is no more because its better known siblings (the opera, oratorio and ballet) have stood the test of time – but it was interesting and exciting nonetheless, to experience such a rarefied entertainment with top-notch singers and actors and production values (including opulent period costumes).

The singers and actors and dancers between them portrayed a cornucopia of personages, concepts and ideas including Orfeo & Euridice, Oscar Wilde, Humanity and Reason, an Irish ‘Cailín’ singing sean-nós, The Prince of Wales as a dog, and - wait for it - Janice Joplin and Hank Williams singing (you’ve guessed it) 'Piece of my Heart' and 'Cold Cold Heart' respectively. Such a mish-mash of styles and genres in experiments such as these often presages disasters of the unmitigated kind, but we were very far from that. What kept us on the straight and narrow was the high quality of singing and acting. As an example of the former we had ensemble pieces from Rossi’s Orfeo where a beautiful soprano trio - Catrine Kirkman, Clara Sanabras, Caitríona O’Leary - gave the pieces a robust, informed interpretation and wonderful blending of voices, with the same for the Quintet: Hope of my Heart. The eclectic spirit was maintained by Caitríona O'Leary’s refreshingly unornamented version of the lament ‘Donal Óg’ with one of Harvey Brough’s sensitively minimalist arranged accompaniment from the consort. A heartfelt rendition of 'The Nightingale and the Rose' by Jim Roche as Oscar Wilde was an example of the latter.

Not all of it worked, of course. The Hank Williams song just seemed banal and trite in contrast with the deep felt emotion of the older pieces and didn’t take to the Early Music make-over, and while Karen Cowley delivered the Janis Joplin song very well, it too suffered the same fate. Jessica Kennedy’s choreography seemed to employ a very limited range of movements and too often seemed to have the purpose of animating an otherwise static picture rather than adding to the sub-text. Unfortunately the staging didn’t hide the joins sufficiently to unify the piece – cues needed to be sharpened up, and long ceremonial entrances from the back of the room only worked for members of the audience who happened to turn around to see what was going on. Otherwise the accompanying music seemed like an over-long interlude and I kept wondering would an ‘in the round’ setting for this room have served the piece better as you could see who’s coming on and off.
By far the best excursions outside of the Early Music zone were the Spanish songs from composers Fernandes and Duron towards the end of the afternoon. Performed by the sopranos, they were given an added authentic feel by the clear bell-like tones of Clara Sanabras. Indeed, Sanabras provided one of the truly mesmerising moments of the afternoon when she performed 'La Vida Callada' accompanied by what looked like to me to be a ukelele played by the soloist herself – with the aroma of authenticity by very effective percussion accompaniment from Francesco Turrissi.

So, was this particular mode of entertainment worthy of such an expensive set of defibrillators? For me, the answer is a qualified yes - but perhaps with a narrower range of references.

John White is a Worskshop Facilitator, Director and Musician.  






  • Review
  • Theatre

Motions of the Heart by Eric Fraad and Louisa Young

30 Nov and 6 Dec, 2009

Produced by Ensemble eX
In National Gallery of Ireland

Music Direction: Erin Headley

Stage Direction: Eric Fraad

Set and Costume Design: Alessio Rosati

Musical Arrangements: Harvey Brough

Choreography: Jessica Kennedy

Lighting Design: Kevin Smith

With: Sopranos - Catrine Kirkman, Clara Sanabras; Mezzo-Soprano - Caitríona O'Leary; Karen Cowley; Tenors - Ian Honeyman, Harvey Brough; Bass - Matthew Baker.

Dancers - Jessica Kennedy, Áine Stapleton

Actors - Iseult Golden, Jim Roche

Consort: Paulina Van Laarhoven, Annalisa Pappano, David Morris, Sarah Perl, Erin Headley, Jörg Jacobi, Francesco Turrisi, Siobhán Armstrong