29 June, 2015Issue 28.5Film & TVMusicThe Arts

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The Sound of Poetry: On Verbatim Theatre, London Road, and Future Libretti

Leo Mercer

London Road
Directed by Rufus Norris
91 minutes


One poetry is written for the eye, another for the ear. If we think of a poem as words on a page (visual) that come to life in the act of reading (sound), eye and ear are oddlily blurred: does a poem begin on the page or in the mouth? But (as I’ve blubbled and blahhed about in my recent OR essays) the way we wordle online opens space for a “page-poetry” that is even more pageful, by incorporating non-alphabetical elements of visual language that make sense to us whilst being difficult to translate into sound.

At the same time, the state of technology is allowing an intensification of poetry considered as pure sound. An audio-file is a piece of audio-paper, inked on by spoken words. At best, these are poems where the poem itself is not the sequence of words on the page but the sequence of sounds on the file. This bypasses the need for a visual notation of what was intended as sound: as transmission of music required notation in pitch and rhythm, transmission of poetry required notation of letters and punctuation marks. Recording can allow transmission of poetry directly as musical language—language made up of pitch, rhythm, sounds as opposed to letters, punctuation marks etc.

Again, the work of Steve Roggenbuck (whose work is at the forefront of internet-infused literature) becomes touchstony: his Youtube videos present poetry without visual text; the recording is the text, and the poetry is sound. The phrase “make something beautiful before you are dead” is transmitted primarily as a spoken phrase, complete with his personal intonation, rhythm and voice. The line cannot be reduced to the words it is written as; it begins as a uniquely spoken line. The video that it comes with, somewhere between a music video and a moving page, does not undercut the sense that the poem is, before anything else, an audio work.


The writer is the sequencer of sounds as well as the sequencer of letters. The area where this has been bubbling most is drama, with the rise of verbatim theatre. Scripts using the verbatim technique are not a run of words to be spoken and acted, but a dramatically crafted sequence of audio recordings to be re-enacted and brought to life. Common in verbatim theatre at the moment is for these audio recordings to be taken from people’s natural speech (such as from interviews), which are then imitated absolutely. The script then consists of far more than words: the exact accent, intonation, rhythm and timbre voice is part of the play too.

At the heart of verbatim theatre is an interest in real speech rhythms, as opposed to so-called natural speech rhythms. Words aren’t brought to life in an obvious way, but with all the unexpected particularicity of someone uttering them spontaneously and individually. Much of the emotion of language is at the language-edge, the odd tic that someone brings to it that is far beyond the words themselves. Like free-spelling, which seeks to capture the real energy of textual language, verbatim theatre puts the writer in a position to script a much broader range of spoken language (increasing the writer’s dictatorship over the final product, in one sense, making it seem diametrically opposed to devised methods; but perhaps just opening up other spaces for dramatic freedoms); and, similarly, it becomes clear that the range of material available online in terms of the sound of human speech is hugific, and ripe for dramatic attention.

Ultimately, in pioneering the concept of writer as sound-artist – of the writer writing sounds – verbatim theatre can be seen as opening up a parallel innovation that any medium of writing can follow, wheter poetry, narrative, drama – or, as I’ll muddle about shortly, libretto. Just as internet writing begins as an attempt to imitate internet text, but then becomes its artistic own when it takes a leap beyond it, so too verbatim theatre can begin as a full imitation of real speech, but then moving creatively to somewhere beyond it. Verbatim theatre is a dramatic technique whose significance will be more in it its influence than in the work it itself creates.


The most striking development of verbatim theatre so far is the 2012 National Theatre music theatre piece, London Road, recently released as a film. The audio material is collated from a series of interviews conducted by Alecky Blythe—its writer, and a pioneer of verbatim theatre in general—after the murder of five prostitutes in Essex in 2006. Her drama recreates the community’s response to the murders, from their initial nervousness, to their eventual communal tightening. In this regard, it is firmly a verbatim drama, and the structure of the piece flits between documentary style interviews, and overhearing people in conversation.

The imaginative leap is in the songs, which begin with the real speech. First, there is a brilliant post-recitative technique where the same rhythms and pitches are sung instead of spoken, creating something close to speech but heightening the sense of the words themselves. Then there are songs, where the melody of brief phrases become the basis for a larger number. song. From the standpoint I’ve been trying to articulate here, a simple conceptual leap is made: if words are already sounds, then they are already music, and ready to be set as they already are.

Adam Cork, the composer of London Road, has written:

Whenever I’ve set conventional texts to music, I’ve always spoken the words to myself, and transcribed the rhythms and the melodic rise and fall of my own voice, to try and arrive at the most truthful and direct expression of the text.

In contrast to the composer bringing the words to life using a hypothetical naturalness, using speech-samples as libretto allows an actual naturalism to be at the basis of the music. The songs have an authenticity that is shockingly, strikingly powerful—and far from anything simplistic that might be expected from a musical. For example, in “Everyone is Very Very Nervous”, we find ourselves in a Christmas market, in which one man is overheard sing-muttering “Everyone is very very nervous, um, and very unsure of everything”. The crowd-become-chorus repeats this, as they walk their individual ways through the market. This is followed by a passage of speech-singing commentary in the market. Then “Everyone is very very nervous” comes back as a chorus.

The drama feels in many ways like reportage or documentary, but this is intensified by the contrasting theatricality of the music – working especially well in the film because of the Les Mis technique of live singing and close-ups. Finding the market singing a chorus is powerful not merely because of the music itself, but because it goes beyond the otherwise normal reportage of the verbatim. It demonstrates the double-move that new language-arts often take: first, a return to the real vernacular of a community (verbatim theatre), and second, the imaginative leap from it which has an explosively expressive potential (verbatim songwriting). The hyper-naturalism creates a sense of hyper-theatricality, which together create a very original piece of drama.


The power of London Road is in the way it tells its story; the significance of London Road is that the techniques it pioneers have the power to become a staple of the future of music theatre, and not just an eccentricity of it. London Road answers a question that most opera-goers feel and most composers and their librettists forget, which goes something like hahaaha like wwhat are they even singin?!g, I cant understand what theyre saying!!! The storys soooo looong/boring/drawnout! Whens it ending?!?

At the heart of people’s intuitions about contemporary culture is the feeling that opera is not being a work of music drama, and become mostly a work of difficult music with all the forces of drama and language alongside it chuggishly. Against the domination of the composer in the form (which parallels the diminished significance of language itself in much contemporary drama and film), London Road explores techniques that can brighten up opera, by returning to a model where the libretto is of greater significance, and the drama within music drama is re-emphasized. The immediacy of the post-recitative technique (amusingly arrived at by other means through youtube auto-tune comedies, such as here offers the prospect of opera where language can move the story on in a sharp, fast-paced way; and trying to build melodies from the melody of our spoken voices can be a source for a re-consideration of melody in contemporary music.

As a musical technique, it can find roots in 20th century attempts to blur the boundary between speech and song, such as Schoenberg’s Sprechstimme, but most importantly in Steve Reich’s work. Where Reich’s early experiments breaking music down into individual re-contextualisable sounds can act for thinking about breaking down visual language to individual letters in a similar way, his later experiments into text-setting provide the precedent for thinking about the sound of poetry. In several works beginning with Different Trains, fragments of speech from interviews are transcribed into instrumental works, and incorporated into complex wholes that transcend the original source-melodies. Reich then brings this into an operatic context in The Cave and Three Tales, which are fascinating formal experiments, but don’t have the dramatic cohesion of London Road. Reich’s work is best as music, a sort of turnpoint where the music is the end product and the language secondary; but where the seed was sown for a re-emergence of a sort of opera where drama and language were of equal footing as the music. Because London Road begins as drama and music exacerbates it, it works as a piece of musical drama too. (It is also worth mentioning Reich’s other innovation that operas using this technique will need to welcome, which is the mic-ing up of singers, and not relying on huge ensembles and operatic singing technique which obscures the words excessively for works in which drama, language and music and working at their best together.)


I feel excitissimo even just thinking about London Road, and I don’t think I’m alonesome in that: watching it for the first time feels like participating in a landmark moment, whether or not it turns out to be. The immediate comparables would be two landmark pieces of music drama (in musicals and opera respectively) in the early-mid 20th century: Kern and Hammerstein’s Show Boat ( 1927) and Britten’s Peter Grimes ( 1945). On one level, their significance was in subject matter. Forms that were treated for lighter purposes were given stories with unexpected emotional depth: Show Boat deals with questions of real people’s lives and race, based on Edna Ferber’s material gathered from investigating the showboats of the 1920s. Peter Grimes creates an incredibly complex portrait of a figure whose problematic actions place him in troubled relations with his community. London Road, too, tackles a story that would normally be seen as beyond the range of musical drama but, partly through the shift in technique, comes to fit the form perfectly. Like Show Boat, it is based on real reportage and dealing with live social issues. Like Peter Grimes, it is about the community’s response to the individual – though here is a humanization of the community, where Grimes is an exploration and humanization of the community (how do they feel about the murderer? how do they feel about the prostitute?).

Their second innovation is in their exploring distinct sets of techniques in order to create the drama and language of the play. Show Boat is a play with music: the songs were incorporated into the play, marking the origins of the book musical:

Here we come to a completely new genre—the musical play distinguished from musical comedy. Now… the play was the thing, and everything else was subservient to that play. Now… came complete integration of song, humor and production into a single and inextricable artistic entity.

Meanwhile, in Peter Grimes, Britten was determined to find a way of setting language in opera that would truly capture the words, naturally at times and poetically at others. He speaks about his rejection of “the Wagnerian theory of ‘permanent melody’ for the classical practice of separate numbers that crystallize and hold the emotion of a dramatic situation at chosen moments” and that:

Good recitative should transform the natural intonations and rhythms of everyday speech into memorable musical phrases (as with Purcell), but in more stylized music, the composer should not deliberately avoid unnatural stresses if the prosody of the poem and the emotional situation demand them…

These, in its own way, are precisely Adam Cork’s achievement in composing London Road, finding a new way of integrating speech with song, and setting the music in a way which serves the text and audience-understanding. It opens the prospect for future libretti which increase the significance of language and drama in music theatre, which bridge the gap between musicals and opera, and which are capable of being more enjoyable, whilst also having artistic integritude.

Leo Mercer is doing a Masters in Creative Writing at Kellogg College. His work is published on Twitter, Facebook, and Youtube.