Singing the unheroic hero

Chris Reid at Chambermade's new opera, The Hive

<img src="http://www.realtime.org.au/wp-content/uploads/art/2/208_reid_chamber2.jpg" alt="Simon Meadows, Anna Margolis, Sally Wilson,
Mathew Champion, The Hive”>

Simon Meadows, Anna Margolis, Sally Wilson,
Mathew Champion, The Hive

Simon Meadows, Anna Margolis, Sally Wilson,
Mathew Champion, The Hive

The Hive is an adaptation by Nicholas Vines of Sam Sejavka’s play The Hive about the death in 1915 and posthumous fame of the Bloomsbury Group poet Rupert Brooke. The 1990 play was much lauded when it first appeared, winning the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Drama. Judging by the libretto for this version, the play is a wordy work, full of sharp exchanges and potent commentary. The opera takes the form of a series of vignettes that capture key moments from the death of the poet during World War I through to World War II, when England was again at war and the memory of Brooke was enlisted to encourage patriotic duty. Sejavka himself declares in the program note that his real concern is with ‘media hype’, the exploitation of the memory of Brooke for political purposes; a lesson that still has much to offer.

Chambermade’s production is for an intimate space–small stage, no wings, simple, well-chosen props–hat focuses on the performers’ delivery of the text. The backdrop is a clear plastic sheet with a green (starboard?) light behind, giving the setting an unworldly feel. The 5 performers, 4 of whom take multiple roles, are elaborately costumed, providing cues to their identities and the eras in which the action is set. The opera opens with the performers as crew members observing Brooke’s body on board the ship where he died, aged 27, dirging “Rupert Brooke is dead, Rupert Brooke is dead!” and hailing him as a fallen hero. “He died for his country”, they cry, mourning not only his demise but also the manner of it: “an insect bite, what a meagre end…” The blood poisoning induced by a mosquito bite was sometimes downplayed in the publicity surrounding his death. His so-called war sonnets were championed, and Winston Churchill in particular wrote an obituary that offered Brooke as a patriotic inspiration. At regular intervals the deceased rises from his gurney to soliloquise, at one point intoning: “I am a dead man but I suspect I have more living to do in the minds of men and nations.”

We meet publishers discussing the release of Brooke’s private papers, the executors of his estate, his friends and former lovers, including Bloomsbury Group members conducting a séance to try to contact his spirit. Insects permeate the work; Brooke was fascinated by them, hence the irony of his death, hence the opera’s title. Characters entering the drama create a kind of hive of activity around his memory.

In contrast to much other opera, The Hive is cerebral, discursive and philosophical rather than romantic or dramatic. Passages of involved discussion are periodically interrupted by Brooke rising and abruptly clapping his hands (as if killing an insect), slapping a book, declaring his observations. In the séance scene, the performers chorus, “Thank you, friend, thank you, friend!” while pondering his life, deeds and misdeeds. They query his sexuality, “Does he prefer man or woman?” and “Did he take Virginia?” Woolf rejects these claims with a melancholy reply, “Spirits can lie like the rest of us.” They analyse his poetry, his former lover Noel wailing. “Rupert, you confuse love with lust.” Those exploiting and judging him reveal themselves.

Vines’ score is fresh, lyrical and suitably edgy, ably supporting the unfolding dialogue. Using just two keyboard players, on synthesisers and a piano, his music is eclectic, flavoured with Romantic and contemporary styles to characterise particular moments. Well-known musical forms—a piece for organ at Brooke’s funeral and later the piano accompanied by a synthesised/sampled sound of a cello in salon style—build atmosphere. Douglas Horton’s direction emphasises the text and its interplay with the score. The actors’ movements on stage are economical, focussing attention instead on the aural elements. Baritone Simon Meadows creates a strong, introspective Brooke who is engaged, through an ongoing dialogue with his various acolytes, in an analysis of self and the world. As an opera, The Hive is a work with great potential, though sung lyrics can be difficult to interpret making the nuances of the text, and even the narrative itself, somewhat elusive.

Chambermade, The Hive, writer Sam Sejavka, composer Nicholas Vines, director Douglas Horton, performers Ben Logan, Sally Wilson, Anna Margolis, Simon Meadows, Arts House, Meat Market, Melbourne, Aug 23-Sept 10

RealTime issue #75 Oct-Nov 2006 pg.

© Chris Reid; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 2006