Yes, Linbury Studio, London For a Look or a Touch, King's Head, London

British archetypes go through the emotions of the immigration question...but we already know what happens next

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The Independent Culture

A thrusting jazz-funk bass-line and the far-off chimes of evensong.

A Vauxhall Gardens serenade and the evangelical swell of a Brixton gospel organ. Three voices in argument – four, five, six, more. The cabby, the yuppy, the stranger on the train. A woman and her cat. A boy and his teddy. A doting grandfather and a pretty little lullaby with lyrics like a rusty razor blade.

Bonnie Greer and Errollyn Wallen's one-act opera, Yes, is a snapshot of the fractious, rainy fortnight in 2009 between Greer's invitation to appear in the 22 October edition of BBC1's Question Time with Nick Griffin, leader of the BNP, and her arrival at BBC Television Centre. Neither Griffin nor his party is named in Greer's libretto, which offers an impression of the wider furore from a series of modern British archetypes. They too remain anonymous. "I don't represent anyone but myself," states Greer, in one of her spoken interjections, "That's fine, isn't it?" Well, yes. As to her question, "Can a simple decision become a work of art?", the answer is maybe.

In place of conventional dramatic tension, Yes has motion, emotion and a scene-stealing animatronic cat. While a BBC announcer counts down the days, a young Muslim woman (Claire Wild) sings a history of immigration, from Viking to Huguenot, Norman to Irish. Wallen's pastiche pits one tribe's story against the music of another. Gerry Cornelius's seven-piece Ensemble X switches efficiently from baroque to bhangra, laced with a tape of hissing rain. Director John Lloyd Davies works hard to convey the clamour of moral panic.

The singers dash across a word-cloud of hot-button abstract nouns in Anna Hourriere's monochrome set, changing politics, identity and soundworld with a change of overcoat or a shake of an umbrella. Democracy! Society! Freedom! Even the audience seats, marked "Yes", "No" and "Don't know", demand a level of participation, a choice.

Chicago-born Greer is the constant in this mêlée of opinion, a solitary figure at a desk. Buttonholed by strangers, criticised by feminist commentators, she listens as a husband, wife and brother (Omar Ebrahim, Alison Buchanan and Michael Henry) argue over whether to attend the debate. A City gent (Marc Le Brocq) laments the disappearance of "the London that I used to know". More overt is the BNP-supporting grandfather (Richard Morris) who is touched to hear his grandson (treble Nikolas Winters) flute a hate-fuelled folk song about Boudicca. Yet even here Yes is stymied by our knowledge of what happened next. Griffin's party has lost support since 2009 and the narrative has changed, stoked by rising unemployment, falling wages, hopelessness and resentment. For an examination of that, better to head to the Tricycle Theatre and The Riots (reviewed on page 60).

If you visit the website of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, you can turn the pages of Manfred Lewin's 17-page journal, Erinnerst du dich als (Do you remember when ...). Created for Lewin's lover, Gad Beck, in 1941, this fragile keepsake is a diary of Zionist youth group meetings, of rehearsals for Schiller's Don Carlos, of love that was illegal. Deported to Auschwitz, Lewin never wore the pink triangle that was designated for homosexuals. His Star of David superseded it. Yet his book serves as the inspiration for Jake Heggie's For a Look or a Touch, which draws on Lewin's words, Beck's memories and testimonies from those imprisoned under Paragraph 175 of the Nazi legal code.

Last weekend, Fusebox Productions gave the UK premiere of For a Look, staged with touching simplicity by Sandra Martinovic. Scored for five instruments, this intimate one-acter imagines an encounter between the elderly Gad (actor Robert French) and his beloved Manfred (baritone Duncan Rock), still beautiful, still 19. Like Wallen, Heggie is a skilled pasticheur, glowing in the smoky tangos and sentimental waltzes of the Berlin nightclubs, less assured in his handling of the horrific brutality of the camps. Five of William Bolcom's Cabaret Songs formed the second half, performed with unimpeachable suavity and rackety glamour by Jonathan Lemalu and pianist Michael Hampton, and powerfully evocative of the giddy hedonism reviled by Beck and Lewin's persecutors.

Next Week:

Anna Picard sees Opera Northern Ireland's Hansel and Gretel

Classical Choice

Freddy Kempf joins the Australian Chamber Orchestra in today's concert of Mozart, Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky at Birmingham's Symphony Hall. The first British countertenor to sing at the New York Met, Iestyn Davies is at a cinema near you in a live relay of Handel's Rodelinda with Renée Fleming and Andreas Scholl (Dec 3).

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