Shiva Feshareki’s ‘Unknown, Remembered …’ brought together the seemingly unrelatable Handel La Lucrezia with the story and lyrics from Ian Curtis’ Joy Division oeuvre in a mix of live baroque instrumentation and electronic soundworlds.
The creation was pure Andre de Ridder (Spitalfields Festival Artistic Curator), bringing differing stories, locations and sounds together in a mix of opera, theatre, and art installation, leaving the audience to create their own art.
As I recall from an interview with de Ridder, last year’s Spitalfields commission Schumann Street set out to achieve a similar goal. It was a great success. It went on to secure an RPS win in May 2018. A crowning achievement for de Ridder in his first year as artistic lead.
This year’s big festival statement didn’t resonate in quite the same way for me.
The elements were there. A dramatic location – a difficult to find empty warehouse space – in which theatrical performances told stories in multiple artforms sited in two rooms separated by a narrow corridor.
Soprano Kathryn Manley cut and lonely and sometimes crazed figure in amongst the audience that wandered around during the performance. The combination of Liam Byrne (viola de gamba) and Marianna Henriksson (harpsichord) set apart by Haroon Mirza’s art installation gave each instrument suitable prominence, exposing textures and allowing an unusually close relationship with each instrumentalist.
The storytelling was more immediate in the second room during the considerably more theatrical tape recorder sequence. There was a chilling kind of solitude as the audience watched Krapp (Richard Strange?) pore over his many tapes, listening to soundbites generated by Feshareki at the mixing desk.
The concluding sequence was mildly disturbing. Making use of the vacant office space in Studio 9294, Lucretia appeared trapped in a sealed room whilst dry ice swirled all around us.
But arresting and well-produced as these were in the moment, there was something lacking. I felt as though I was observing something I couldn’t quite make out. I didn’t feel able to rise to the artistic aspirations because the intention wasn’t immediately obvious without reaching for the accompanying programme notes. This was one of those rare occasions when the art itself didn’t immediately speak to me, meaning I struggled to create the art myself.
It might be fair to include some caveats here. First (and this might at first seem irrelevant), I arrived at the venue annoyed. I’d walked from Stratford International across Queen Elizabeth Park to Hackney Wick at a fair pace, but struggled (even with Google Maps) to find the venue, only finding a Spitalfields banner after I’d stumbled into another audience member experiencing similar levels of difficulty.
In addition, I struggled to read some of the programme notes – white text on a black background, in particular,are phenomenally inaccessible in a dimly lit room. I get that edginess is central to the brand, but simple accessibility measures like readability and venue signage remain important.
So, I could have been irritated before proceedings got underway. My focus could well have been some place else.
Having said all of that, what Spitalfields do well is piquing interest. The programme book for example is written in such a way that it yields information about past events even if you haven’t attended them.
Unknown, Remembered … succeeded in stoking the curiosity in three different works I had previously never even considered exploring. That ability to create content that lasts beyond a live performance event is Spitalfields’ USP.
Spitalfields Festival is a content producer’s dream. I’m not entirely sure whether they realise that.