Grimes on the Beach – Aldeburgh Music‘s open-air production of Benjamin Britten’s first opera Peter Grimes – has been lauded in the mainstream press rightly praising it as a skepticism-busting spectacular. Read the critics’ homework. It’s a rare thing when so many people agree.
The final performance on Aldeburgh Beach on Friday night lived up to the expectations those write-ups set and made my unexpectedly last-minute pilgrimage back to East Suffolk worth every penny.
The cool breeze was the perfect respite for the muggy air that had clung to Aldeburgh and its environs for most of the day, making for a comfortable open-air auditorium for the hundreds of people who descended on the town with their cooler bags and waterproof jackets. This was unquestionably ‘Glynebourne by the Sea’ – not so much Aldeburgh being ‘taken over’ by people by wannabe opera-buffs, rather, Aldeburgh’s most endearing qualities making a far bigger audience than the usual hard-nosed Festival cognoscenti.
Indeed, for the entire evening I was there, I didn’t see anyone else carrying the Festival programme book. Instead, it was bags of food, woolly hats, flasks, bottles, wine glasses and discreet portable seating. These were Radio 4 listeners (people I spoke to on the night were able to name most of the Radio 4’s programmes on which Grimes on the Beach had featured during the week), people who hadn’t necessarily heard Britten’s famous opera before, people who were surprised to learn that the story was bleak and people who were quite comfortable ‘admitting’ “we’re not opera buffs particularly”. There were also people who – overheard at breakfast the morning after – whispered “I was never really a fan of Britten’s music – I’ve always found it very difficult to understand. The opera didn’t change that. But it did look amazing.”
The people who I cadged a lift from the hotel I was staying in in nearby Thorpeness to the beach on Friday night knew only a little about Grimes hadn’t seen in it production before and had come down from Lincolnshire to visit Aldeburgh for the first time. Grimes on the Beach seemed to have attracted a different audience demographic from the usual Festival crowd, to an opera which didn’t particularly deliver a happy ending to offset the bleak events of the three hours pre-ceeding it. “We just wanted to attend it – it’s a very special event,” said one lady I spoke to in the High Street, “there’ll never be anything quite like it in Aldeburgh again.”
This was the first time that Grimes had been fully-staged in the town it had been written in and about. So joined up was everything one wondered why it hadn’t been done before. The pop-up restaurant, tie-ins with local delicatessens, hotels, taxis and coach firms, there were moments during my flying 24 hour visit when it felt like all of East Suffolk’s had been willingly galvanised into action for the main event – an entire community convening on a beach to observe the dark underbelly of a fictional community on the stage in front of them. It was the kind of dramatic endeavour with endless real-life parallels writers dream of dreaming up.
Putting on Grimes on the Beach was an idea so obviously right that it highlighted the short hop from similarly obvious site-specific productions and the desperate ideas Alan Partridge pitches to BBC One Controller Tony Hayers in a bid to cling on to his flailing career.
At least, that was my skeptical view initially, but here this evening hearing Britten’s jagged melodies and sonorous strings with the seascape the composer originally imitated, something entirely unexpected happened. Britten’s music was charged with a new vitality, irrefutable evidence that the composer hadn’t just been orchestrating what he heard around him, but evoking it. This was what Britten saw and heard. We were hearing Britten at source set against the very scene he saw when he walked his dog every morning.
As assessment of the cast seems like a pointless endeavour given how brilliant an ensemble they had already proved themselves to be in the opening night live concert performance. But here on the beach, costumed and lit, pacing up and down the damaged pier, hair and coats flapping in the wind, each character was made real, buffeted around by the elements just as we the audience were. We were the very community that ostracised Grimes. We were repulsed by them too at the same time. Alan Oke‘s slight frame made Grimes cutting into the horizon a vulnerable, belligerent and brutish figure, but human like the rest of us sat there watching him.
Charles Rice‘s Ned Keene who’s spivishness set against the 1940s setting (the beach show saw a crowd pleasing fly-by of a 1945 spitfire before the prologue began) now made perfect sense of his performance I commented on during the 7th June concert performance. And Giselle Allen‘s sometimes demure Ellen Orford set in a community on a war footing made her a figure of stylish hope in an increasingly desperate and hopeless situation set in a town at risk of World War II air attack. Yes, there was a war on – but the problem with Grimes that had to be dealt with put war for The Borough into a rather quaint perspective.
The spectacular set – a totally absorbing piece of visual art posing more questions the morning after than expected – rooted the drama in a time we the audience now look on through a rose-tinted flow. Fading seaside glory coloured with rust and rotting wood, buffeted by an unforgiving salty North Sea wind. Only bad things can happen here: you really don’t want to spend too much time hanging around. And don’t be misled when the coloured lights hang between the leaning street lamps. It’s a desperate attempt at jollity by a self-destructive community. Nothing good will happen here.
Criticism of the pre-recorded soundtrack is a distraction. The real triumph here was how a pre-recorded orchestral score comprising complex tempi could be brought together into one massive ensemble piece in the open air. I only hope the DVD/Blu-ray release goes some way to explain the technical challenges which had to be met to put the production on in the first place. And although there were moments when soloists strayed from the pre-recorded track, it wasn’t long before the spectacle of the achievement made questions about the authenticity of this production an irrelevance.
Grimes on the Beach’s ultimate triumph is the way in which it places Aldeburgh back on the map, rooting Peter Grimes, its composer Britten and the Festival in it in the minds of new audiences who hitherto hadn’t had Aldeburgh on their cultural map. More than that, I’ve been impressed by how this production has been planned to last longer than three ‘live’ performances. The last show was filmed for cinema release (and – oh come on, surely – DVD, Blu-Ray or possible TV broadcast). With a cropped 16 x 9 image the ‘screen’ version of opera will be the ultimate version of what we’ve all rightly cooed at this week. This was an open-air production they said could never been done which was produced with a distinct end product in mind: a breathtaking filmed performance people in future generations will look on in awe. Grimes on the Beach will be a source of future revenues, becoming a seminal production in its own right, at the same time as setting audience expectations high for future productions.
What next? Albert Herring in Aldeburgh High Street? What will the locals say then?