“Bring it on”. This was the response of Nicholas Sears, Head of Vocal Studies at the Royal College of Music, when Iain Burnside sketched out his plan for a music theatre event that would almost certainly cross boundaries of taste. Using Benjamin Britten’s song cycle Les Illuminations as a point of departure, Journeying Boys traces the life of the 19th-century French poet Arthur Rimbaud, whose prose-poem suite Les Illuminations forms the basis of Britten’s composition. While the project was designed as a contribution to the Royal College of Music’s Britten centenary celebrations, the theatrical plot focuses more on Rimbaud’s life and legacy than the composer’s. Yet, at a time when Britten’s works are filling the concert halls and a sensational new biography by Paul Kildea has rocketed the composer’s tragic status to new heights via a contestable diagnosis of syphilis, Burnside’s “sideways glance” at the musician was a potentially refreshing one.

Journeying Boys © Fiona Clarke
Journeying Boys
© Fiona Clarke

Embarking on this theatre piece in association with the Guildhall School of Music and Drama (where it will migrate later this year), Burnside adds to his portfolio of collaborative stage shows. A Soldier and a Maker, his play based on the life of Ivor Gurney, was received with acclaim at the Barbican Centre and the Cheltenham Music Festival in 2012. Shining Armour, a music-drama investigating the relationship between Johannes Brahms and Clara Schumann is also set for festival performances this year. Of Journeying Boys Burnside claims “it’s a kind of play, it’s kind of a piece of music theatre, it’s definitely not an opera and it’s definitely not a concert”. Such negative definitions don’t exactly enlighten us. However, in his vision for a flexible artistic proposition, Burnside is responding to the current trend for synthesized creative offerings – and with some interesting results.

The plot flits between scenes in Arthur Rimbaud’s life, his relationship with the poet Paul Verlaine, Benjamin Britten’s encounters with Christopher Isherwood and W.H. Auden, and a song class in the vocal faculty of a conservatoire. The capacity of the Royal College of Music performers to traverse such a range of scenes was at times staggering. Peter Kirk shone as Arthur Rimbaud, moving seamlessly between superb acting (it took a detailed reading of his biography to convince me that he hadn’t been imported from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts) and mesmerizing song. His precarious relationship with Verlaine was deftly played out alongside Matthew Buswell: as a pair they captured the intensity of a homoerotic affair that was marred by violence, sadism and manipulation. An especially striking scene was the performance of Claude Debussy’s carousel song Chevaux de bois in the vocal class. Here a student attempted to enliven this setting of Verlaine’s poetry for her colleagues while Rimbaud and Verlaine pursued one another at the side of the stage in a circular dance to the words “Tournez, tournez, bons chevaux de bois” (“Turn, turn, good horses of wood”).

However, the blending of the arts in this production was not flawless. I had serious misgivings about several decisions made by the “Movement” team. The student performers were often to be seen standing en masse with legs wide apart in a threatening stance, or pointing aggressively at random members of the audience. This seems to appeal to clichéd theatre school traditions that have little to contribute to the subject matter. Several performers were also tasked with dancing around singers in a balletic style. To be sure, there was some evidence of intuitive grace and this was a delight to see. However, attempts were inevitably tarnished by the odd pigeon-toed step, a leg wobbling mid-balance and the dull thumps of mismanaged landings.

The programme promised a script of X-rated proportions. The sight of Rimbaud masturbating up against a piano-turned-altar certainly came close to achieving this. (I heard one member of the audience remark afterwards that this was “not the sort of play one would take one’s mother to see”.) Yet amidst all the swearing, raucous behaviour and shouting, I found myself wondering if Burnside had really done no more than skim the surface. We were given no dramatic recreation of the circumstances that led Verlaine to take a shot at his lover, nor were we offered sufficient insight into his deteriorating mental state. Rimbaud’s creative energy was overshadowed by jokes about homosexuality which peppered the entire production, while Britten’s music, along with songs by Debussy, Vaughan Williams and Fauré, tended to appear as ethereal soundtracks rather than active elements in the drama.

The title Journeying Boys plays on a line from Thomas Hardy’s poem Midnight on the Great Western. Britten’s setting of this text received excellent treatment in the form of a simulated train scene with the different classes of carriage indicated by costume, and performers exploiting meandering vocal lines. Yet, Burnside’s title is also indicative of his desire to marry up the lives of various famous homosexuals, as though their sexuality represents a common “essence” independent of social and cultural settings. While I’m not sure that this enriches our experience of Britten’s music, Rimbaud’s poetry, or for that matter homosexuality itself, there is no doubt that the students gave a fine performance and that the audience celebrated Burnside’s humour.

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