rape drama that’s cold to the point of numbness

The Blue Woman, at the Linbury Theater – Alastair Muir

I have a suspicion that when we say a work of art is “powerful,” it often means that we enjoy it less than we think we should. What more can be said, when the subject is indisputably important, the treatment impeccably serious and sensitive, without trampling on good intentions, sincerity and conviction? So, for the socially or morally squeamish, let’s call Laura Bowler and Laura Lomas’ new chamber opera, The Blue Woman, “powerful,” and leave it at that.

Although the thing is that it is not. The most moving moment in the one-hour, four-singer show, a co-production between the Royal Opera and Britten Pears Arts, which explores the psychological aftermath of rape is a statistic on the show. “1 in 5 women has been raped or sexually assaulted as an adult.” There’s your punch, your climax, your big reveal. Where do you go from there?

For years, we have sensationalized sexual violence against women, cannibalizing it for second-rate television dramas on Saturday nights. The addition of an unscripted rape to a Royal Opera production of Rossini’s Guillaume Tell in 2015 drew boos and headlines. But if we draw a veil of good taste over all but the purest emotion, we lose more than just the onlookers: we lose our foothold in the narrative, the tension, the arc. The muttering, shrieking and growling (and rarely singing) rage of The Blue Woman is not to be missed. That may be true, but that’s not necessarily theater.

Playwright Lomas, whose impressive résumé includes everyone from Radio 4 to the National Theatre, has produced a freeform, lyrical libretto: concise in all the right places, but full of whorls of repeated images and ideas. He finds a strange urban beauty in the world of broken glass and bleach, concrete and trains inhabited by his four anonymous women. But while on the page we see monologues and ensembles, a tense confrontation in a police station reception, on stage there is very little differentiation.

Composer Laura Bowler scores the text for four female voices and four solo cellos (Pullman-style daemons? Aggressors? Inner voices?) that run the gamut of extended techniques, from rubbing pitchless sounds just above the bridge to soft stroking flapping with a loose cable on the strings. The electronics stain and blur the palette, while the percussion peremptorily keeps us on track, marking time in this meditative blurring of space and experience. The unusual instrumentation recalls Philip Venables’ opera Denis & Katya. But where Venables finds vast and varied spaces in the textures of his opera, Bowler closes them in suffocating uniformity.

Lucy Schuafer and cellists in The Blue Woman, at the Linbury Theater - Alastair Muir

Lucy Schuafer and cellists in The Blue Woman, at the Linbury Theater – Alastair Muir

The voices, experimental vocalist Elaine Mitchener, mezzos Lucy Schuafer and Rosie Middleton, and soprano Gweneth Ann Rand, sit on top. The vocal lines are strangely, deliberately inert. They may jump and chatter, but they do so while devoid of emotion and expression. The fact that most of the excellent cast is criminally underused (Bowler prefers electronic loops and echoes to using performers who stand silent) only adds to the sense of dissociation at a distance. These are not so much singers as singing bodies.

Director Katie Mitchell picks this up in a staging that is cold to the point of numbness. Do we get anything from the live experience of four performers in a row looking out into a box awash in blue? They stand, they sit, they take a single step forward, but otherwise they just watch and speak: no interaction, no reaction, no progression.

Above their heads, live action, a movie plays at all times. A young woman (Eve Ponsonby) wakes up in an abandoned flat, wanders the streets of London anxiously looking over her shoulder, writhing in a lightbox coffin. It’s a lot like all those TV dramas that we’re all too sensitive to enjoy right now.

Until July 11. Tickets (only round trip): 020 7304 4000; roh.org.uk

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