Death of a Scientist, Oran Mor, Glasgow

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Dr David Kelly, the Iraq weapons expert who has become a kind of political fable, has been at the centre of a play, a television drama and now an opera. The husband and wife team of Zinnie and John Harris, writer and composer respectively, have created a 15-minute operatic snapshot Death of a Scientist as part of Scottish Opera's series of bite-sized pieces of new music-theatre, Five:15.

The Harris partnership has concentrated on only the final moments of Kelly's life, taking a great deal of liberty and introducing a pair of silver- and gold-clad female characters whom the scientist eventually recognises as "harpies of war". With their siren-like voices (Arlene Rolph and Lise Christensen), they spin lies and threats in his ear. A contributor to TV's Spooks, Zinnie Harris knows all about embroidering a plot, but her far-fetched libretto is so peculiar that it seems to trivialise a desperate action.

Richard Rowe doesn't bear anything like the haunted expression of Dr David Kelly, which became chillingly familiar in the aftermath of his suicide. But he does a good line in despair and sings with moving conviction, a man who seems unsure of whether he is alive or dead or between the two states. Another, identified, figure with a stentorian voice describes a future for Kelly that is most definitely not rosy.

Driven beyond the edge of reason, Kelly turns the knife he is handed on himself. Repeatedly stabbing his tummy, only finally does he bleed. The victim of unfocused dramaturgy, playing fast and loose with facts, Death of a Scientist is a mish-mash of almost pantomime effect lacking in internal dynamic. John Harris's ear for textural voicing, however, makes the often dreamlike instrumental parts hauntingly effective. But government officials trying to draw a veil of silence over the whole Kelly affair couldn't have produced responses more Kafka-esque than this strange fantasy which hovers between comedy and tragedy.

Witty presentation adds to the opera-lite airiness of Happy Story by David Fennessy and Nicholas Bone, while Stuart MacRae's experience in opera shows in Remembrance Day, a macabre little shocker. Dean Robinson's grisly old man and Mary O'Sullivan's naive teenager project the lyricism of MacRae's music.

The Hub, Edinburgh, 7-8 March (0131-473 2000)