In 2014/15 I had the great pleasure of collaborating with Gaitkrash, Theatre P’Yut, the Llanarth Group and independent artists Jing Okorn Kuo and Adrian Curtin on playing ‘The Maids’, a response to Genet’s Modernist play. Our process was fully documented on this blog, and my co-creators have been reflecting on our process since, publishing articles in various journals and on-line platforms. The following is the opening to a fascinating essay by cellist and co-creator Adrian Curtin, with a link to the full text, below.
With thanks to Adrian and Contemporary Theatre Review/Taylor and Francis Online.
Recomposing Genet: Analysing the Musicality of ‘playing The Maids’
by Adrian Curtin
Track 01: Prelude
In 2012 Deutsche Grammophon released an album entitled Recomposed by Max Richter: Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. Max Richter, Recomposed by Max Richter: Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, André de Ridder, Konzerthaus Kammerorchester Berlin, Daniel Hope. Part of their ‘ReComposed’ series, which includes electronic remixes of classical recordings, this album features a ‘recomposition’ of Vivaldi’s score rather than a remix of a prior recording of the work. Richter explains:
I wanted to make the piece because I loved the Vivaldi. So it was my way of having a conversation with Vivaldi. I decided to rewrite the score on a note level, which meant re-recording it with an orchestra. [That] let me […] get inside it and […] start to work with the alchemy of the material itself, and […] gave me much more scope in terms of what I could do with it. I […] went through [Vivaldi’s score], picking my favourite bits and kind of ‘turning those up’ and making new objects out of those. It was […] like a sculptor having fantastic raw material and just putting it together in a way which kind of pleased me.
he Four Seasons, which has become depressingly familiar through tinny reproductions heard on the telephone, in shopping malls, and on elevators and airplanes, gets a new lease of life courtesy of Richter’s recomposition. Richter abstracts elements from Vivaldi’s concertos (about 25 per cent, in his estimation) and gives them a new spin, looping and collaging fragments, creating new textures, recasting the patterns of baroque music as electronica-inflected post-minimalism. Richter’s version provides an uncanny listening experience. It sounds both familiar and unfamiliar; the composer deliberately subverts expectations in places. The effect is disconcerting, but intriguing – rather like overhearing a delightfully skewed mental rendition of Vivaldi’s iconic work.
Musical recomposition is not new. As Joseph N. Straus observes: ‘[t]he desire to recompose the works of one’s predecessors seems to be almost as old as Western music itself’. Straus argues that twentieth-century composers such as Schoenberg, Stravinsky, and Webern were prompted to recompose the work of earlier composers as a result of ‘anxiety of influence’ (Harold Bloom’s famous phrase). ‘In their recompositions’, Straus writes, ‘[these twentieth-century composers] reinterpreted the past in order to avoid being crushed by it. They attempted to neutralize significant or characteristic works of the past by imposing upon them a new, distinctively twentieth-century musical structure’. Richter’s statements about his recomposition of The Four Seasons suggest that he was motivated, not by a struggle for artistic autonomy, but by a desire to enter into dialogue with Vivaldi and create something that would complement this canonical work and allow it to be heard differently.
It is commonplace for playwrights and theatre-makers to adapt existing dramatic material and present it in an altered, updated form. This can involve deliberate subversion of the source material. For instance, Richter’s recomposition of Vivaldi’s score is suggestive of contemporary ‘Regie’ approaches to theatre and opera, as undertaken in continental Europe. Regie ‘plays’ with the text in an often overt, directorially provocative manner. It can lead to the ‘recomposition’ of a text for performance. To my knowledge, the term ‘recomposing’ has not been used to refer to the creation of new theatre that directly draws on an acknowledged ‘primary’ source (i.e. an existing play). Yet, it is an apt term to use, I suggest, when discussing work that borrows from the dramatic canon but eschews the conventions of dramatic theatre in favour of alternative ‘compositional’ methods. Matthias Rebstock and David Roesner have proposed the term ‘composed theatre’ for work that, in Roesner’s words, ‘[brings] the musical notion of composing to the theatrical aspects of performing and staging’. This aligns with ‘recent developments towards postdramatic forms that de-emphasise text, narrative, and fictional characters, seeking alternative dramaturgies (visual, spatial, temporal, musical), and focusing on the sonic and visual materialities of the stage and the performativity of their material components’. Composed theatre does not simply refer to the use of music in theatre; rather, it is a way of conceptualising theatre made using compositional strategies and techniques that are ‘typical of musical composition’. Recomposed theatre, I propose, may denote theatre that explicitly reworks pre-existing source material from theatre history in a musically compositional manner. The term provides a new way of thinking about adaptation.
An example of recomposed theatre is playing ‘the maids’, a co-created piece made by an international ensemble of seven artists working with Kaite O’Reilly (dramaturg) and Phillip Zarrilli (director) that premiered at Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff in February 2015. playing ‘the maids’ previewed at the Granary Theatre in Cork, Ireland as part of the Cork Midsummer Festival on 20–21 June 2014. It was performed at Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff on 19–21 and 27–28 February 2015, in Theatr Brycheiniog, Brecon on 26 February 2015, and at Aberystwyth Arts Centre on 6 March 2015. A 14-minute promotional video is available here.
Three theatre companies collaborated on this project: The Llanarth Group (Wales), Gaitkrash Theatre Company (Republic of Ireland), and Theatre P’yut (South Korea). Jing Hong Okorn-Kuo (from Singapore) and I (also from Ireland) worked with these companies as independent artists (Okorn-Kuo as an actor/devisor, I as a cellist/devisor). As the title suggests, playing ‘the maids’ relates to Jean Genet’s classic drama Les Bonnes (The Maids, 1947). However, it was not a production of that play. This was stated in the programme. There have, of course, been many experimental stagings of Genet’s texts. For an account of key productions of The Maids, see David Bradby and Clare Finburgh, Jean Genet (Abingdon: Routledge, 2012). Rather, it used Genet’s text as creative inspiration, focusing on its character relationships and power dynamics as part of an oblique investigation of modern servitude, wealth-as-privilege, cultural notions of guilt and oppression, phantasms, and the politics of intimacy. It took themes from Genet’s play and recomposed them via a montage of newly written, found, and adapted text (primarily English-language, with some Mandarin, Korean, and Irish), psychophysical scores, choreography, and sound compositions that Mick O’Shea (a sound artist) and I performed onstage. The production featured two sets of maids, one Irish (performed by Bernadette Cronin and Regina Crowley) and one Korean (performed by Sunhee Kim and Jeungsook Yoo). Okorn-Kuo played a Chinese ‘madame. I will refer to Okorn-Kuo’s character as ‘madame’ rather than ‘Madame’ to differentiate her from Genet’s creation. The idea of using lower-case spelling for this purpose is Zarrilli’s. Similar to Richter’s recomposed Four Seasons, playing ‘the maids’ appropriated a canonical work for the artists’ own purposes, mining the source-text for raw material, re-contextualising it, and playing it anew.
In this article I will outline how playing ‘the maids’ functioned as a stage composition, and more precisely as recomposed theatre, by analysing its musicality. I will consider the sonic/musical components of playing ‘the maids’ as well as musically inflected aspects such as its dramaturgy and performance style. In this, I follow Roesner’s lead in treating musicality as a ‘perceptive quality that goes beyond the aural sphere’ to attend to ‘musical qualities or relationships of non-auditory events, such as silent movement, gesture, or even colour schemes’. David Roesner, Musicality in Theatre: Music as Model, Method and Metaphor in Theatre-Making(Farnham: Ashgate, 2014), p. 14. Analysing playing ‘the maids’ using this theoretical lens illuminates various aspects of contemporary theatre-making and demonstrates the significance of their inter-operation here. These aspects include the creative re-use of canonical source material, international collaboration, intercultural dramaturgy, musicality as process and paradigm, the continuing relevance of Genet’s work, and the vibrant legacy of theatrical modernism. My analysis of playing ‘the maids’as an example of ‘recomposed theatre’ is not meant to foreclose other ways of conceiving it. I primarily situate the piece in relation to western concepts and cultural traditions because of my background and knowledge specialism. I recognise that the piece might be interpreted outside the context of modernism, for instance. My collaborators Jeungsook Yoo and Sunhee Kim have co-authored their own scholarly account of this piece. See Jeungsook Yoo and Sunhee Kim, ‘The Actor’s Process of Negotiating Difference and Particularity in Intercultural Theatre Practice’, Theatre, Dance and Performance Training, 7.3 (2016), 417–37. I develop these motifs in the following ‘tracks’.
The rest of Adrian Curtin’s essay can be accessed here.