A Magic Flute @ The Barbican

Written for Exeunt

Peter Brook has spent a lifetime distilling his theatrical process, a pilgrimage that has resulted in productions of astonishing subtlety. For some his belief in stripping away theatre to its barest bones, in constant honing and sharpening, in the scraping away all that is extraneous from even the most prized texts, is masterful. To others this process of refining is becoming reductive, with not only the superfluous but the essential succumbing to his scalpel.

With 11 and 12, his last piece to be shown in the UK, falling squarely in this latter category within critical opinion, will his ‘unexpected take’ on Mozart convince otherwise?

Infused with deep Masonic undertones (with both Mozart and librettist Emanuel Schikaneder members of this shady fraternity), The Magic Flute is full of symbolism and ritual. When ruler Sarastro steals Pamina, daughter of the Queen of the Night, a pair of unlikely friends goes on a quest of self enlightenment to rescue her.

In his heavily cut version, A Magic Flute, Brook strips away all of the stage trickery that would have underpinned Mozart’s original Zauberoper, a ‘magic opera’ utilising various moments of theatre wizardry. Here there is only rich colour saturating the stage and a series of moveable bamboo poles which pertain to the cages of the underworld, the fire and brimstone the heroes have to face.

On this bare stage Brook gives us Holy Theatre in its most potent form. Reverence haunts every step of the barefooted cast; this stage may be an empty space but it is also a sacred one and each moment counts. Movement director Marcello Magni (of Théâtre du Complicité fame) ensures that every action is centred and weighted perfectly. The performers’ ease and informality creates a gentle intimacy both with each other and with the audience. This gently playful essence acts as a counterpoint to the opera score, although there is no chaotic Rough Theatre to be found here. A lone pianist delivers each note of the adapted score with delicacy.

Though Mozart’s fragile beauty is much on show here, where is his life affirming, if occasionally embarrassing, vulgarity? For all its purity this evening lacks a sense of passion; when so much is underplayed one cannot help but feel underwhelmed. Even Papageno, by far the silliest character in this fairly worthy tale, is a muted clown. Thomas Dolie does a superb job of drawing every last laugh from his audience with a consummate and charming performance full of grumpy humphs and comedy groans. As Tamino, Adrian Strooper makes a suitably honourable, if limp prince, the hero to Papageno’s comedy sidekick. Jeanne Zaepffel sings sweetly as Pamina but is far too serene to be the proactive heroine of Mozart’s reckonings. Malia Bendi-Merad makes a powerful Queen of the Night, her small stature belaying a thrilling vocal tone and breathtaking precision and she provides one of the only truly transporting moments of the evening.

This production is too eloquent to be joyous and too still to be jubilant, but it is none-the-less a light footed and sprightly Magic Flute. In the hands of narrator/facilitator William Nadylam this simple piece of wood does seem to take on otherworldly properties and although Strooper’s handling of it is not quite as confident, Celio Amino’s training pays off in some quietly impressive slight of hand trickery.

This may not be the full throttled magical experience that Mozart intended, but Brook’s flute still has the power to charm if not completely beguile.

Running at The Barbican until 27th March.