The vast majority of festivals this year – particularly in the UK and US – have been forced to cancel all their live events. It’s required great determination and great adaptability to stage anything at all, scrabbling around to make venues safe and making programming decisions with no certainty that the rules prevailing at the time of performance will permit those choices to be used. So hats off to Michael Chance at The Grange Festival for putting on an event that’s innovative, ambitious and responsive to the conditions.

Starting narration by Tonderai Munyevu and Héloise Werner
© Joe Low

Precipice is a 60 minute site-specific show: audiences are led on a circular path around The Grange, stopping at intervals to see and hear various combinations of musicians, dancers, singers, storytellers, acrobats. The heart of the show is formed by a pair of works that could not be more contrasting but are complementary in terms of one’s emotional response to the pandemic. The first is Shobana Jeyasingh’s dance piece Contagion, originally created for the centenary of the Spanish Flu of 2018 and reimagined here to adapt to the Covid-19 pandemic and to the performance space. As three narrators tell stories of suffering and death from different parts of the world, four dancers writhe and contort, either expressing the action in the stories or reacting to them in sympathy. It’s a potent reminder that our current pandemic is neither the first nor the worst of its kind.

Contagion, choreographed by Shobana Jayesingh
© Joe Low

Next was the piece that will have attracted many to Precipice: Sir John Tomlinson delivering the “Flieder monologue” from Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, the passage in which Hans Sachs reflects on the way his world has been turned upside down by the arrival of Walther and his new groundbreaking music. With his inimitably deep, resonant voice and a huge degree of humanity, Tomlinson guided us through how one responds to a world that has changed under one’s feet: it may be a matter of aesthetics for Sachs, as opposed to our current medical, social and economic fears, but the sense of desperately scrabbling for a lost footing is clear. Sitting in the audience was no less a Hans Sachs than James Rutherford (who substituted for an indisposed Tomlinson in earlier performances): Rutherford looked as rapt as the rest of us.

Sir John Tomlinson performing the Flieder monologue
© Joe Low

The audience itself is neatly choreographed, ushered around by a pair of circus artists to its designated seating points, which are all bright blue. There’s a blue theme to the occasion: almost all the performers are dressed in blue, sets and decorations are in blue, there’s even a blue-clad child in the background riding a blue bicycle or playing with a blue ball. Narrators Tonderai Munyevu and Héloise Werner provide a framing story in verse and music that gives the event its name: the image of a bird taking flight from a cliff.

The blue theme might sound gimmicky and the framing story can be opaque, but they work surprisingly well at providing coherence to an event that could all too easily degenerate into a variety show. So does the progression of musical set pieces: the Flower Duet from Lakmé provides a gentle, well-loved opener; Bach’s Cello Suite no. 3 gives meditative consolation. More choreography, set between The Grange’s classical columns, provides the background to the finale: a sequence of more modern vocal works from Poulenc and Lili Boulanger onwards. Perhaps the most notable was Caroline Shaw’s wordless Partita for 8 voices.

Sound reinforcement was used throughout, which generally worked very well. Early on in the show, in the Lakmé duet, I pined slightly for unamplified voices, but later on in the show, when gale force winds picked up, the amplification was nothing less than a godsend.

Undoubtedly, Chance will have seen Precipice as a pale shadow of the summer-long festival he had hoped to stage. But I’m very impressed by this thoughtful, well put together assembly of works which both entertains us and holds up a mirror to our times.