Children lost in the woods

Pellers and Melisande | Coliseum, London
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The Independent Culture

The Beauty of Debussy's Pelléas and Mélisande almost dare not express itself. So much of what it is about (and what makes it great) is unspoken - or should I say unsung - that finding a stage poetry for it, finding visual metaphors that do not compromise its secretive and elusive nature can lead directors into a labyrinth of subtext that makes the vaults beneath Golaud's castle unintimidating by comparison. But in truth, Pelléas and Mélisande is child's play. Golaud even says it at one point: "What children you are..." It's very nearly the key line of the text. It's about the child in the adult. Innocence lost, betrayed, violated.

And if we run through our mental Roladex of directors most likely to understand that concept, one name comes up again and again: Richard Jones. Child and intellectual. He and his designer Antony McDonald see the piece so clearly from the adult child's perspective that you wonder why you've never looked at it this way before. Their beautiful and moving production - created for Opera North in 1995 - has grown up, I'm sure, but it retains the freshness of first sight. At the heart of it is the boy Yniold (David Wigram), Golaud's son by his first marriage. Yniold is Golaud's past (the childhood he never had); the infirm Arkel (an excellent Clive Bayley) his future. Somewhere in between, he got lost.

Jones gives this idea a child's clarity. It's not just the designs - very much in the Jones/ McDonald "house style", with kids' line drawings once again establishing the visual tone - but in the characters' basic behavioural patterns. The way they interact or don't interact. Right from the start - even before a single note of music is sounded - man and nature are one, a row of doors symbolising the paths Golaud might have taken, and still might, before losing himself forever in the thickets of his own soul (it's Jones's production of Sondheim's Into the Woods all over again). He and Mélisande are both lost: unloved, unfulfilled, directionless, dispossessed. Damaged. It could not be more explicit. The long train of the soiled gown she is wearing when they first meet quite literally ties her to her past. And then there is Pelléas. Everything that Golaud would like to be but is not.

In the most striking visual metaphor of all, the mysterious doors of the opening scene correspond with a row of cell-like rooms in which our main protagonists are simultaneously scrutinised in their solitary confinement. It's a constant reminder of just how isolated we (as in human kind) all are.

I also much like the way Jones respects the contemplative nature of the musical interludes by bringing in a front cloth. It accentuates the epigrammatic, often brutal terseness of Debussy's short scenes, while acting as a kind of visual punctuation. I like the visual irony of the cloth - a seashore on which Golaud's simple hut casts the shadow of a Gothic castle.

So, a really satisfying evening. Hugh Macdonald's punctilious translation is delivered with exemplary clarity by a cast for whom the play really is the thing. Joan Rodgers's strangely distant Mélisande, Robert Hayward's elemental Golaud, whose passion can only be expressed in anger (his molestation of Mélisande is really disturbing), Garry Magee's boyish Pelléas, somehow belong in this crepuscular world.

Debussy's infinitely subtle score is finely rendered Paul Daniel and the ENO orchestra, who lucidly explore the middle voices that seem to sit in some indeterminate place "between worlds". The silence they observe at Mélisande's death is overwhelming.

As is the imagery - a mournful, monochrome triptych. "It's not my fault", says Golaud, afraid to look upon the dying Mélisande. And it isn't his fault. There's the pity. Then the living depart, leaving Mélisande in one room, Pelléas in the next, their lifeless bodies covered with cold white sheets. And in the third is the boy. Alone. Hiding beneath his own sheet. Is hope dead? Is Golaud's future his future?

Further performances on 1, 3, 6 and 8 April, 020-7632 8300

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