Royal National Theatre
23rd November 2005
Most readers will be aware of Handel's connection with the Foundling Hospital and Thomas Coram, but I suspect that few of us are really aware of the terrifying level of infanticide and child abuse which lay behind the need to establish the hospital. Coram Boy - for all that its plot draws on The Winter's Tale and many Dickensian fantasies - is rooted in the sharp reality of life in the underbelly of Georgian Society. That the heroes survive across two generations is a matter of delightful fiction; most children caught up as the unwanted and illegitimate offspring of abused or unlucky women, perished at birth, or worse still were sold into a life of effective slavery.
This makes for a dramatically exciting but very uncomfortable evening. Where Shakespeare hints at realities, Melly Still's production of Helen Edmundson's adaptation faces things with stark honest. Melissa gives birth on stage and her child is whisked away to be disposed of by the 'Coram Man' - a none-too-subtle euphemism for Otis Gardiner who takes money to dispose of unwanted babies or sell small children to the navy. Corruption survives to outlive the potential goodness around it and while families are united in the end, many have suffered in the meantime.
And Handel? While the plot unfolds, Handel is trying to mount a performance of Messiah for the Foundling Hospital. There is a splendid scene where he is forced to sit in obvious discomfort while one of the sponsors drools over his fame. That the sponsor proves to be one of the villains is even more telling! If Philip Pullman is dark, this is even darker and will not be to all tastes, particularly as a Christmas show. That it is so effective and the music so amazingly apt throughout is a tribute to the whole cast and the musical arrangements by Adrian Sutton who draws on Handel but never uses him for simplistic effect. Choruses from Messiah underpin the text and quotations highlight the paradoxes of Georgian life. The stage is dominated by an enormous organ which becomes the symbol not only for the power of music but the spirituality of the Georgian epoch and its desire to lift society out of both its poverty and decay, and also its na´ve superstition. Messiah is experienced as English not because of its Christian beliefs but because of the Social reality it represents.
Nicholas Tizzard does not overplay Handel's Germanness but does give us a clear indication of his strong mindedness and determination in the face of a shallow minded and grasping society, relieved only by the dynamism of a few philanthropists. It says much for Thomas Coram's drive that he was eventually removed from the board of the Foundling Hospital - which he had founded - because he was too radical! When I saw the production on 23 November Jan Winstone was in charge of the music, which seemed effortless in execution, and the large cast coped easily with For Unto us, His Yolk is Easy and a rousing postlude of Halleluiah.
One interesting point which might cause concern amongst the Cathedral choirs across the country. The 'boys' including the off stage choir were all sung by girls or young actresses. Were there no boys up to the job?
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