wed 29/06/2022

The String Quartet’s Guide to Sex and Anxiety, Brighton Festival review - molto nervoso | reviews, news & interviews

The String Quartet’s Guide to Sex and Anxiety, Brighton Festival review - molto nervoso

The String Quartet’s Guide to Sex and Anxiety, Brighton Festival review - molto nervoso

Calixto Bieito's melange of text and music delivers a mesmerising riff on desolation

Anatomising melancholy: Miltos Yerolemou opens with Robert BurtonBrighton Festival

Calixto Bieito has a reputation as a radical theatre-maker, and by any standards The String Quartet’s Guide to Sex and Anxiety is an unusual, genre-breaking piece; Bieito has described it as “like a symphonic poem for a quartet of musicians, and a quartet of voices”.

A mesmerising 90-minute melange on the subjects of its title – anxiety seems marginally the dominant emotion, somehow preceding sex – it’s a collaborative effort between the Heath Quartet (with whom Bieito worked on his ENO Fidelio five years ago) and four actors, Cathy Tyson, Mairead McKinley, Miltos Yerolemou and Nick Harris.

The production is a joint venture between the Birmingham Rep and the Brighton Festival, and must have brought input from all involved in its creation. But the “creator”, as he is credited, the prime generator of ideas, was clearly Bieito, who has written of his past experiences with anxiety disorder. From him, we assume, came the choice of texts – the words are drawn from the likes of Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy and Korean-German philosopher Byung-Chul Han’s contemporary The Burnout Society, Swedish existentialist Stig Dagerman and Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, and a variety of poets, WH Auden prime among them – as well as their assembly and ordering, and setting to music, initially (and dominantly) Ligeti’s String Quartet No. 2, followed by Beethoven’s Quartet No. 15, the “Serioso”.

Text somehow draws in music, as Yerolemou opens the show (main picture), lights in the somehow incongruously grand Theatre Royal still up, with a recitation of Burton; he’s certainly statuesque, but arguably lacks a desired richness of voice. A jumble of music stands surrounds him, with metallic chairs piled in high stacks behind, both to be absorbed into the developing spectacle (you are unlikely to have seen a music stand used quite like this before).The String Quartet’s Guide to Sex and Anxiety, Brighton FestivalThen Yerolemou’s fellow actors join him, stalking out the front stage space, the quartet materialising in the middle ground. It’s a moot point, considering the title, as to whether the quartet is in fact the guiding element, whether it accompanies the text (in a supporting capacity) or is an equal partner to it. But the fragmented text is matched ideally to the frantic, wiry whispering of the Ligeti, a balance modified with the appearance of the Beethoven around the hour mark.

The broad effect is of elements threading together, attaining varying degrees of consonance and discord. The relationship between the actors is fragmentary – each either involves, or separates him or herself from what the others are doing (pictured above), the impression being that of handing on a monological baton. It’s not just Mairead McKinley’s Irish accent that recalls Beckett, as she accomplishes what can only be termed a “fellatio monologue”, an agony of emotional uncertainty that is nevertheless played out with almost mechanical precision.

It builds to an almost unbearable concentration, with surely a hint towards redemption

Elements of comedy – Bieito has said that he wants The String Quartet’s Guide to be “entertaining and enlightening” – come to the fore when the cardigan-clad Nick Harris continues. He embarks on a marvel of lists, strange aggregations of symptoms and phobias, philosophical references set against a veritable shopping list of medications (not to mention that oldest-fashioned remedy, booze). Then it’s over to Tyson, who compels with the lucidity of her rendition of Dagerman’s “To Kill a Child”, its fluidity ebbing and flowing perfectly. She achieves such stillness, one that contrasts with the tactile agonies that follow her.

Trying to sum it up in words is surely redundant, though “mesmerising” remains as good a description as any. Better to leave it with some of the musical terms dotted through it, pizzicato tragismo, allegro con delicatezza, asai vivace mai serioso among them. “Suicides have a special language,” wrote Anne Sexton, whose work appears here, and it’s with such laconic Italianate flourishes that Bieito marks the rises and falls of his piece.

It builds to an almost unbearable concentration, with surely a hint towards redemption. The String Quartet’s Guide demands total involvement, and when one's absorption is so complete, an element of catharsis is somehow inevitable. But perhaps it’s more consolation, as defined by Dagerman, whose words – “the need of consolation that dwells in a human being is insatiable” – resound at the very end of the evening. Or, as another poet, one not (I think) cited here but no stranger to south coast desolation, might have put it, a few more fragments shored against our ruins…

Below: Cathy Tyson in The String Quartet’s Guide to Sex and Anxiety


Bieito has said that he wants 'The String Quartet’s Guide' to be 'entertaining and enlightening'


Editor Rating: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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