25 May, 2015Issue 28.3North AmericaPolitics & SocietyTheatre

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Art’s Responsibility to Life

Emily Holman

Between Worlds
By Tansy Davies and Nick Drake
Dir. Deborah Warner
The Barbican, London
11-25 April 2015


Where does one draw the line between art and life? Centuries of men and women have come up with various answers, and it is the sort of question to which, happily, a definitive answer can never be given. ENO’s performance of Between Worlds, an opera composed by Tansy Davies, with words by Nick Drake, whose world premiere took place at the Barbican last month, offers its own contemplation on the question. It explores—depicts—imagines—recreates—dramatises (no word is quite right) the New York events of September 11th, 2001. It is a stunning piece, powerfully moving, never gratuitous or sensationalist, and—which might seem an impossible task for a work that invents stories and characters for “the most important event of our times” (Drake)—it exhibits impeccable respect for the lives that were lost. It is a beautiful tribute to a real-life event that also fully meets its requirements as a work of art. Neither straining toward documentary nor paralysed by fear about artistic imagination, the opera delicately balances life and art, demonstrating not merely that they can be balanced, but that their finest matching occurs in an interweaving of the realms.

The opera, directed by Deborah Warner, opens with a young Janitor (Eric Greene) journeying to work at the North Tower. Including the line “I rise in the dark and ride the subway,” the lyrics attest to a quieter side of New York’s fast-paced and glamorous working life. The Janitor is one of thousands who clean the 110 floors of each of the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers. Their work is unseen; everything, he sings, will be as it was for the unknown people who appear each new day. Standing on the higher part of a split-level stage, he pauses to relish the exceptional view of emerging dawn that the tower offers. Above him, on a separated stage level, sings another man, the Shaman (Andrew Watts), who knows what is to happen. His presence is disconcerting; he repeats rhapsodically: “there is only darkness.” An acrobat is lowered from the ceiling to carve arching, graceful images with his form in mid-air, before returning out of sight. The falling man has been glimpsed.

The pace is transformed as the chorus on the lowest level of the staging begin to assume personas. Four characters are introduced, each busily engaged in the world of their mornings before work. Largely this is a frenzied rush: the Realtor (Clare Presland) hardly has time to attend to her son, and they argue as she rushes off in sneakers for the commute; the Older Man (Phillip Rhodes) argues with his wife about an appointment that day with his cardiologist that he doesn’t want to keep. The Younger Woman (Rhian Lois) offers a different tone, wrapped cosily in the luxurious lazing warmth of contentment with her lover, who asks her to stay for the day. She can’t, she sings, she has a very important meeting. These words, very important meeting, are invoked with such frequency through the song that they ought to be capitalised. As so often, work demands all our attention until the unexpected occurs, recasting things as a different sense of their significance emerges. Finally, we meet the Younger Man (William Morgan), who has arrived in the city for a meeting and is thrilled with New York. The four converge on the raised floor of the Janitor, who has remained to lay out a buffet for the meeting. These are ordinary, messy lives, presented unsentimentally. The Janitor does not want to leave; he has no desire to return to “an empty room where I can’t sleep, where I don’t want to sleep because I dream.” The Older Man, who lies to his wife about his cardiology appointment, is also having an affair. These intimations of private sadnesses are covered up in the everyday tumult of public interaction, of small talk and politeness. The Younger Man, scared of heights, looks out of the window with the encouragement of the Janitor, and half-fascinated, half-horrified, comments that “People are dots and dashes, just information.” The dramatic irony foreshadows what is to come: an act of violence that attempts to treat people as just that. Yet the presence of the Janitor, companion to the Younger Man in his fear, speaks of something else. Human compassion proves that people are more than dashes or dots.

When the first plane crashes into the tower, the five characters do not know what is going on. It is painful to watch the process of their realisation. Their impatience turns to frustration, turns to fear, turns to horror. Their small pettinesses become generosity as they recognise that they will not leave the tower, and instead of fighting over the one working phone they encourage each other to call loved ones. They share stories. “Tell me about your child,” sings the Younger Man to the Realtor, who talks about the fight with her son. He comforts her. Everybody encourages the Older Man to call his wife, with whom he has not wanted to speak, because she would find out that he lied about attending his cardiology appointment. Through a kind of communion with the Shaman above, the Janitor is portrayed as a man with a fuller recognition of events than the other four characters. It is he who keeps them drinking water, who tries to calm them, who acts most gracefully and generously.

He accompanies the Older Man on a venture to find another way out. Once their situation has become definitively clear it is he who is forthright in specifying that they call their loved ones. And knowing that they are loved provides comfort to the characters. The Mother of the Younger Man (Susan Bickley) sings to him when she turns on the television to find out what has happened, and the strength of the love that she sings about reassures him. The split-level staging, allowing the audience to see son and mother at the same moment, a privilege denied to them, gives the sense that he can, in some way, hear and heed her words. The words “I love you,” which could have become facile through excessive repetition, instead connect characters even when no direct communication is possible.

Yet the characters are also alone. “Why is this happening to us?” one sings. There is only one answer: “I don’t know.” The awareness of love does not lessen terror or pacify fierce desire for life. “I wanted more time,” the characters sing. Languages poses a difficulty, resisting the characters’ desire for clear communication: “I don’t know how to say how much I love you.” Yet nor are words wholly inadequate; it is the repeated formula, the invocation of love, which has the capacity to express grace together with tragedy. In the horror of what is happening, human response has a potential to influence—not to change, not to transform, but quietly and subtly to have its impact upon—the situation. The chorus, representing friends and family powerless to rescue their loved ones, is able nonetheless to bear witness. This is not through its physical presence, but through its emotional and mental solidarity with those trapped in the towers. The chorus sings, “We’re here,” making offerings of its presence and attention. As darkness takes over the stage, the Janitor leaps from the second level, slowly dancing in the air with the Shaman before disappearing. The Mother, who has sat at the front of the stage since her song of fear and love for her son, performs an agony of lamentation, beating her chest and singing. The chorus joins. The performance closes with the five characters who have died joining the rest of the cast assembled on the lower stage; they give out candles, and silence is held.

Between Worlds is just over 90 minutes, lasting almost as long as the time between the first plane crashing into the North Tower and its collapse 102 minutes later. Its 15 singers, chorus, and 36-piece orchestra (conducted by Gerry Cornelius) deserve praise for their focused, impassioned performances; so too do movement director Kim Brandstrup, lighting designer Jean Kalman, and designer Michael Levine. Each aspect of this production testifies to the human experience of events on September 11th, 2001. Drake has pointed out that the messages sent during that time—half a million paper messages in 102 minutes—”start out in an ordinary way and become extraordinary.” “[W]hat’s amazing is the imperative that people felt to communicate: at first to find out what was happening, but when they knew, their absolute imperative was to make contact with their loved ones. You get messages that start out saying: what do you want for dinner? And within an hour, they’re saying, you make my life, please go on living, please go on loving. It’s a human drama that’s absolutely elemental.” It is this message of love that the creative team foregrounds:

What the people in the towers really needed to say to each other in the end was: love. It sounds simplistic to say, but it wasn’t simplistic to those people. They were the last words they were going to say, the last things they wanted to convey. That says something very important about human beings, which is at the heart of what we’re trying to do.

This opera is an offering of focus and attention, a gift of shared memory, to those who died. It is also an act of memorial. Elements of the Latin Requiem Mass are interspersed throughout the piece, intended, according to Davies, “as a vehicle for the voices of the dead to reach their loved ones on earth.” The production manages a treatment in art of one of the most spoken-about events of our times, a tribute to lives lost. The opera will also enable an ongoing act of memorialising, as it moves between cities, expands its cast, and brings itself to the attention of more audiences. As Warner has said, it is troubling that so much information about the events is available, and in such detail; it increases the need for a space of reflection that is thoughtful and dignified. The Wikileaks release of victims’ final messages to their families and friends can be found in moments by anybody.

It’s quite careless that it’s all there, that people can go online and find a fragment of one of those lives that were lost. There’s very little that one can’t find. So in fact it’s important that this material is dealt with seriously and with love.

Where so much of life is fast-paced and hollow—precisely the pace pictured in the opera’s opening—Between Worlds performs an important role: it forces focus onto an event that requires contemplation, and it does so in a manner that brings people together to share and to grieve and, above all, to honour. In Davies’ words: “It’s our responsibility.”

An interview with Tansy Davies (composer), Nick Drake (librettist) and Deborah Warner (director) can be read here.

Emily Holman is reading for a DPhil in English Literature at Balliol College, Oxford.