Hotels hold a certain fascination for us with a constant drift of people making them their home for a night. Every visit has a different story, and hotels nurture the deepest of secrets in their carpets. Writer and director Enda Walsh hears voices in the walls and lets his imagination run riot in this disturbing tale set in the seedy, sinister two star Last Hotel in Ireland. Irish composer Donnacha Dennehy's urgent, post-minimalist score provides a perfect match for this dark chamber opera from Wide Open Opera and Landmark Productions, receiving its world première at the Edinburgh Festival.

Claudia Boyle (Woman) © Patrick Redmond
Claudia Boyle (Woman)
© Patrick Redmond

Jamie Vartan had a huge challenge to design a set featuring a grubby hotel function suite, bedroom, garden and car ferry in one space, and his ramshackle arrangement of hotel detritus round a central raked platform captured the mood perfectly. Wire coathangers clustered on rails, or dangled from a single bulb in a crazy ad hoc sculpture, and ghosts of the night before haunted the set: a single dirty pink high heel shoe discarded amongst a cluster of plastic tumblers, and a solitary orange balloon marooned high on the stage lighting frame. Clever lighting from Adam Silverman skilfully conveyed changes of place, a series of lift journeys and an entertaining dance floor light show way beyond two star hotel budgets.

Assisted suicide, never far from the headlines, challenges our lawmakers and morals so it is topical that the Irish Woman in this strange tale has contracted a Husband and Wife from England to meet up and end her life. The plot is deliciously surreal, almost reminiscent of Twin Peaks in style, with an omnipresent Caretaker played by actor Mikel Murfi who neither sings nor speaks, the hotel’s only staff member stalking the main characters, peeking into luggage, and launching into manic repetitive dance routines when he thinks no-one is looking. The opera opens with him cleaning last night’s bloodstain off the dancefloor.

Baritone Robin Adams clearly relishing the part of The Husband, a gas engineer, thundered loudly about his dreams of using the money from this killing assignment to build a swish kitchen extension to his home. Love between him and his Wife, soprano Katherine Manley, arriving still queasy from the car ferry journey has stalled, and she is the least willing participant in this gruesome arrangement, desiring only to ‘matter little’.

Coloratura soprano Claudia Boyle completed the cast as the desperate Woman at the centre of things seeking the ultimate end, despite imploring mobile phone calls from her needy family. The plot twists and turns and the balance between the characters alter. The Husband and the Woman met at the opening of a housing estate where she was handling the PR, and the body language between the two certainly suggested friendship, yet by the end of the story, a surprising bond has built up between the Wife and the Woman.

For grim stories to work best, there has to be some humour, so while a pull-down screen shows a series of garish slides of canteen food, the Husband is presented with a plate of the truly terrible. The caretaker holds a large bin bag as the Wife retches. The death in the bedroom, involving a gas cylinder and plastic bag over the Woman’s head is rehearsed in shocking detail, a rehearsal being part of the paid-for service. The craziness deepens and as the fancy dancefloor lights come on the Husband sings a strange Karaoke, his Wife gets drunk and temporarily falls into the arms of the mysterious Caretaker before the three characters make a final lift journey to the bedroom.

Robin Adams (Husband) © Patrick Redmond
Robin Adams (Husband)
© Patrick Redmond

Composer Donnacha Dennehy’s music is urgent, noisy and in rhythmic loops, with influences from Glass, Reich and the Bang on a Can ensemble. He founded his own twelve-piece The Crash Ensemble to explore the boundaries of classical, and with its intoxicating line-up of strings, percussion, clarinet, flute, trombone, electric guitar and accordion, they generated a vibrant pulsing energy from the pit under conductor André de Ridder. Dennehy wove Irish folk idiom into the music at key dramatic moments, exploring the sean nós unaccompanied singing style.

While this was an excellently performed new opera, with all the singers rising magnificently to the challenging vocal parts with their spectacular leaping intervals, the jumble of mad ideas and compellingly odd plotline did not quite add up to a faultless whole. In Menotti’s The Consul, we completely understand and sympathise with Magda Sorel who, at the end of her tether, ends it all. Here, in a drama devoid of likeable characters, we are presented with a young smartly dressed Woman who has a job and family responsibilities, and there is never quite enough in front of us to explain exactly why she is contemplating suicide.   

As the car ferry sails away from Ireland, the light from the hotel room is visible across the water. The Husband and Wife have found love again as money has been paid, and a new kitchen beckons, but as the voices of the Wife and the Woman finally intertwine we are left with hotel ghost voices in the walls. When we next book into a hotel room, we may very well wonder, like the Woman at the start of the opera, who used the shower, the wardrobe and the bed the previous night. Sometimes it is best not to think too hard, or examine the carpet too closely.

***11