Goodbye, glorious Gloria

Gloria were glorious. They made a musical out of Ruth Rendell. They armed Sheila Hancock. Now they are to die. David Benedict talked to the four ground-breaking artists as they prepare to go their separate ways
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"We have to make the marriage work ... I've got some ideas," whispers Leah Hausman urgently to Nicolas Bloomfield. Hang on a minute; what's a nice Jewish mother doing talking about such things to a gay man? Truth be told, I'm not eavesdropping on private lives. The snatched conversation comes in a break in rehearsals for Seven Sacraments, the latest, and, alas, the last production from Gloria, aka director/ choreographer Hausman, composer Bloomfield, producer Simon Mellor and writer/ performer Neil Bartlett.

Between them, these four artists have produced some of the most exciting and stimulating theatre of the last 10 years. "You'd better sit down. You've got it coming to you," threatened the publicity for their adaptation of Ruth Rendell's early masterpiece A Judgement in Stone. Who else would even have considered taking such a popular crime novel and turning it into "a musical thriller", let alone have persuaded Sheila Hancock to take the central role of an illiterate, almost silent woman who guns down an entire family while they're watching Don Giovanni on television? (If that sounds vaguely familiar to those who didn't see it, Claude Chabrol later filmed the novel as La Ceremonie). Against all the odds - try naming another musical thriller outside the operatic tradition - the company's stage version was a striking success and, in many ways, stands as the quintessential Gloria show.

It was written and tailored to the specific talents of particular performers - notably Hancock and the actress/singer Beverley Klein - and was a highly dramatic piece of storytelling, but with live music at its heart. As Bloomfield observes, "It was never a case of `Oh, let's set a story to music and that'll be OK'. It had to cry out for music. There really is no other way of doing it." If other musical or opera composers and librettists applied the same exacting criteria every step of the way, the nation's lyric theatre would be in a far healthier condition.

Seven Sacraments represents the culmination of Gloria's rigorous dramatic and musical approach, a fully-staged dramatic oratorio, a reinvention of a musical form using religious texts. It's on a scale the four of them would never have dreamed of 10 years ago. As they prepare to go their separate ways - although they will continue to work together in different combinations and guises - they all admit to the thrill on going out on such a high. Gloria was formed to produce shows that four small-scale theatre artists couldn't do elsewhere. Now they all work in companies and buildings as grand and diverse as the Lyric Hammersmith and ENO. It's time to move on.

Back in 1988, if you wanted to use live music it was either opera with all its attendant scale and expense, or you had to use a taped soundtrack. They began breaking the mould by turning Mary Braddon's 19th-century novel Lady Audley's Secret into an echt melodrama, but the funding meant the instrumentation ran only to Bloomfield on a grand piano. Ten years on, he has scored their finale for an orchestra of 26 (strings, brass and percussion), full chorus, two soloists, and a children's choir of at least 60. Oh, and don't forget the dancers. Ten years ago there were five performers touring small arts centres. The wildly ambitious Seven Sacraments sees them bowing out big time, with a cast of 150 in highly specific venues in Brighton, Nottingham and London: cathedrals.

Their choice of venues has been a defining characteristic from the word go. Bartlett and Bloomfield met at Oxford in the late Seventies, when they formed A Company, doing what Bartlett now half-dismissively describes as "performance art in bathrooms

"At that time, and probably still," muses Bartlett, "there was this huge divide between what was deemed an interesting audience and what wasn't. We wanted to work in theatres as opposed to arts centres, to deal with bigger stuff than the concerns of the art house circuit. The top of the tree was three weeks at the ICA, but we would keep sneaking off to see musicals or to hear classical music. We thought, how can it be that all the people who see that sort of show are stupid, because we love sitting with them at Me and My Girl in Glasgow, or something at Blackpool Grand. We've been lied to. These are not unexciting works. Pina Bausch was OK, but you were not supposed to be mad about Ruth Rendell or Rodgers & Hammerstein."

Those twin giants of the musical formed part of the inspiration for Night After Night, a massive co-production with seven venues both here and across the US. It even came in two separate parts. The latter was a quirky, full- cast musical that grew out of a solo performed almost a year earlier - from a sketch to a full canvas. At first glance Seven Sacraments would appear to follow the same path, having previously existed as a rapturously- received Bartlett performance (with artist Robin Whitmore) at the Royal London Hospital.

Yet the two works are entities in themselves, two discrete variations on a theme. They both use the metaphor of Nicolas Poussin's paintings of the Seven Sacraments - the journey from birth to death via baptism, confirmation, marriage, penance, ordination, the holy Eucharist, extreme unction - but you need to have seen neither the paintings nor, indeed, the earlier show.

Gloria's productions have always evolved through individual and then collective enthusiasm around an idea. In this case, Bartlett had been fascinated by the paintings, which hang in a separate, sepulchrally-lit room in the Scottish National Gallery of Art in Edinburgh. His three partners didn't really know them, but the more they talked, the clearer the show became. Stemming from the site-specific nature of the version in the hospital, with all its immediate resonances of life and death, guilt and dread, the religious setting of the full-blown work builds directly upon the atmosphere of the three churches in which it will play.

Yet it's far from being a standard devotional work. Its creators don't even share a religion. Bartlett was brought up in the Church of England, Bloomfield had little or no clear religious background, Mellor is a lapsed Catholic, and Hausman is Jewish. However, Mellor and Hausman have both had children recently, events which focused them on the central tenets of the piece: the notion of childhood, and the official marking of moments in a life. Thus, although they're slightly wary of saying so, they're using The Book of Common Prayer not only for its content but for its structure.

That's been a key word in the Gloria vocabulary. Religious texts (including psalms and words by John Donne) may seem a thoroughly unlikely basis for a theatrical piece, but they acknowledge that their finest work has sprung from putting personal feelings inside very definite structures. In Seven Sacraments, Bartlett plays the central storytelling figure drawing on his own memories of childhood, but also using the religious staging-posts to hold and question fundamental common experiences.

"Love, marriage - which I take to be the right to love someone in public - and death, they happen to us all. There is a sense of revisiting childhood terrors in hospitals and churches. They are both very, very important places where these big things happen that grown-ups get upset about but don't ever really talk about. Of course, some of it is much more joyful. Babies are born in hospitals and baptised in churches."

All four of them share similarly mixed feelings at the planned parting of the ways. "It will be sad," says Bartlett, ruefully, "but it feels incredibly right. Far better than grinding out shows to fulfil a funding brief." You can sense that they're still slightly amazed at the immensity of Seven Sacraments, but also, secretly, at what they've pulled off over the last decade. "It's shocking," laughs Hausman. "We never thought we'd go on this long."

`Seven Sacraments' at St Bartholomew's Church, Brighton tonight & Fri; at Southwell Minster, Notts 22 & 23 May; Southwark Cathedral, London, 28-30 May.