Peter Maxwell Davies’ Eight Songs for a Mad King, first premiered in 1969, was composed to a libretto by Randolph Stow that was based on the writings of the mad king himself, George III of Great Britain. The king would use the tunes pumped out by his mechanical organ to try to teach his pet bullfinches to sing and it was these tunes and songs that Maxwell Davies and Stow turned into a harrowing theatrical account of the king’s madness, scored for solo baritone voice and a six-member instrumental ensemble. Though now fifty years old, this piece still maintains an incredible impact especially when performed with such intensity as here.

Robert Tucker © Jeff McEwan
Robert Tucker
© Jeff McEwan

Directed by New Zealand Opera’s new General Director Thomas de Mallet Burgess, this production has re-envisaged the troubled king as a corporate director having a stress-induced breakdown in his boardroom. The audience is divided into two, one half experiencing the performance from inside the boardroom with the performers and the other half seated in the square outside, watching through the Ellen Melville Centre’s full-length window with headphones transmitting the audio in real time. When indoors, the audience is crowded around an enormous boardroom table and it is on, under and around this table that baritone Robert Tucker portrays the character’s throes of madness and being in such close proximity to the performers in such a small room created an incredibly personal and claustrophobic atmosphere. Seen through the window from the outside, it was a very different experience. Despite the crystal-clear audio from the headphones, the audience was suddenly far less connected, missing details as we tried to see past members of the indoor audience and coping with the extraneous noises of the city around us. 

Robert Tucker and Luca Manghi © Jeff McEwan
Robert Tucker and Luca Manghi
© Jeff McEwan

Performing in a setting that required him to be mere centimetres away from audience members at times meant that Tucker was incredibly exposed but he turned in a true tour de force. The vocal part requires a range covering over five octaves, from the lowest bass notes to a high falsetto and he coped amazingly with the score’s lyrical elements and the various shrieking, whispering and clucking noises he was called upon to create. It was also a physically intense performance as he alternately hammered the table and danced flirtatiously with the large standing lamps, culminating with Tucker smashing one ensemble member’s violin with his bare hands. Thankfully, throughout it remained a respectful and at times endearing portrait of a real suffering human being, struggling to overcome a breakdown, rather than ever descending into mere parody. By the end of the inside performance it felt intensely traumatic to have witnessed the pits of despair into which the madness had plunged the central character. After his final “Review,” the monarch was clearly crushed and exhausted and withdrew from the room heartbreakingly accompanied by the spare beats of the drum. From the inside of the room, this was devastating, but to experience it from outdoors was to see it again but without feeling the same empathy, reminding one that the struggles many undergo with mental health can be much less easy for others to identify let alone understand with competition from the distractions of the outside world. 

Robert Tucker © Jeff McEwan
Robert Tucker
© Jeff McEwan

Six instrumentalists from Stroma Ensemble conducted by Timothy Carpenter played Maxwell Davies’ score with concentration through a gamut of musical styles, even in the face of the more involving aspects of Tucker’s performance, including flautist Luca Manghi having to continue his bird-like twittering even while being physically manhandled by the king. This show was part of New Zealand Opera’s new stated strategy of revisioning opera in this country, of engaging new audiences and reimagining the relationship between artist and audience. On the evidence of this magnetic performance, they are off to a good start.

****1