First performed in 1653 with music by Christopher Gibbons, and then revived in 1659 with additional music by Matthew Locke, the masque Cupid and Death makes for curious viewing today. Like semi-opera, another 17th century theatrical genre that flourished exclusively in England, the masque included substantial speeches that were delivered without musical accompaniment. On Saturday night, it seemed as if the music was going to be particularly marginalised, with the first scene involving actors talking over the instrumental dance. However, this fear proved to be groundless, and the music and singing came ever more to the fore as the piece advanced. It was quite a successful first endeavour by the Pearl and Dagger Company, with plenty of positives outweighing some amateurish aspects.

Matthew Locke
Matthew Locke

The plot, or rather the loose potpourri of elements of Roman mythology was written by James Shirley for an audience familiar with classical culture. While at an inn, Cupid and Death swap arrows, which leads to young lovers dying, while their decrepit elders renew their amorous activities. In the comic high point, one character is shot by Death, and falls in love with his performing apes. At the end, the god Mercury intervenes, and restores the natural order (although he forbids Death from touching the musicians). Grafted into this story were other mythological characters: there was at one point a ‘dance of the Hectors’, presumably a reference to the Trojan hero, mysteriously now in triplicate.

The aforementioned opening scene involved the actors ‘setting up’ before the show proper, a tried and trusted piece of meta-theatre. Kudos especially to the Host (PJ Williams) who was able to extract impromptu comedy from the late arrivals. Whenever the dialogue turned to Death, Cupid, or other allegorical characters such as Folly and Madness, a comical recorded sound was heard, a good idea that ended up being somewhat overused. Some of the dialogue was amusing, other parts rather tedious (comedy, of course, famously travels less well than tragedy).

A major aspect of the musical portions of each ‘Entry’ (as the divisions in the work were called) were the dances, choreographed by Fiona Garlick. Most of these were performed by specialist dancers, who gambolled around in what seemed to be a historically appropriate style (not something on which I can speak with any authority, alas). Each ‘Entry’ also featured a variety of different sorts of singing: at times, members of the cast sang; at others, members from the non-acting chorus sang either solo or together.

By far the most operatic singing was heard from Neil Kirkby, a former principal baritone with Opera Australia, who played Mercury. When he let himself go, his enormous voice was rather out of scale with the rest of the cast and indeed the dimensions of the room, but he showed himself capable of restraint when needed. Hester Wright, as Nature, was probably the strongest female singer heard on the night. Owen Elsley as the Chamberlain was quite at home with the archaic English, and brought off his comic love song to the apes. Cupid (played by the young Vanilla Tupu) had a light voice, but was accurate and true in pitching. Bass Richard Bell and tenor Richard Black were the pick of the quartet of non-acting singers, the former in particular demonstrating a pleasant tone. The tiny band (two violins and a continuo part consisting of theorbo, virginals and cello) gave an historically informed performance of the score. The heat of the room gave rise to certain difficulties with tuning, but the articulation and ensemble was mostly in place.

While the performances were in the main satisfactory, the same couldn’t be said for the set design and staging. An indicative incident saw the green drapes on Nature’s bower get caught in the wheels of the prop as she entered. The performers did well given the limitations of space, but the whole set-up felt a bit ramshackle. The overlapping of performance and production roles, whereby the cellist was credited as part of the set design and costume team while the director Nadia Piave featured in one of the dances, may well reflect historical production practices, but if the company is to move from producing labours of love to regular professional entertainments, they may need to go down the route of increased specialisation.

What Pearl and Dagger has got right is support: the production was able to take place thanks to a crowd-sourcing campaign (the new way of funding the arts, it seems), and Saturday night’s audience was warmly enthusiastic throughout. Some even participated by groaning and collapsing theatrically when Cupid shot his fatal arrows into the crowd. It is to be hoped that the fledgling company can build on this promising start, and become another fixture on the Sydney scene.