Philip Glass: Satyagraha
It has taken over 25 years for Satyagraha to come to London but the triumph of the staging by Phelim McDermott for ENO should not be underestimated. Though there have been many stage works by Philip Glass over the intervening years Satyagraha is one of his most poignant and effective compositions, its long scenes reflecting the changing emotional and intellectual development of Ghandi while in South Africa. That process needs time and the final scenes, drawn out almost to the point of ecstasy or pain – dependent upon your point of view – are as necessary to the truth of the events described as is the death of Tristan. It would wrong to attempt to shorten either!
I have to admit to an inward groan when I read that video design was to be involved – particularly after the impact such ideas had had on the WNO Dutchman – but here they were at last integrated into the totality of the design and subtle enough to be almost unnoticed in their effectiveness. Only when a projection went slightly wrong the first night did one realise just how accurate and how successful the projected images were.
Added to which the steep curve of the back wall made the projection doubly difficult, yet all the text was clear and precise. The massive curved wall hid a myriad of doors and sliding panels which could be adapted with ease to allow for rapid movement of cast and transition between scenes. On stage scenes were often supported by massive paper-made puppets or improvised settings. The build up of the sea from line upon line of sticky-tape was breathtakingly beautiful. Simplicity was the key and it worked well throughout.
Costumes tended to be stereotyped but then with the exception of Ghandi himself there are few individualised characters. In the lead Alan Oke was impeccable as Ghandi, on stage almost the whole time, he commanded the action, both physical and intellectual. He was ably supported by Janis Kelly, Anne Marie Gibbons and Ashley Holland.
The chorus were in robust form for a long evening which makes as high a demand of their numeracy skills as their musical ones. The orchestra under Johannes Debus seemed as if they had known this score for far longer than can have been possible given the accuracy of their reading.
ENO may still have problems behind the scenes, but this season is proving to be one of the best for many year.
Photographs by Catherine Ashmore
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