Review: Poetry in perfectly balanced emotion

Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith

Neil Bartlett occupies an almost unique position in British theatre. Director, writer and performer, he stands astride the division between high art and high camp, with a little low cunning for good measure. His best work is poised between the aesthetic and the ascetic, combining a healthy theatrical extravagance with rigorous self-discipline. It's a juggling act that relies absolutely on balancing all the elements at his disposal. Too much austerity and you're left out in the cold.

Yet when everything is in harmony, you're drawn inexorably into the heart of the piece. Few things are less likely to cry out for a full-blown production than a song cycle, but Bartlett's staging of Britten's Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo was proof of his highly theatrical imagination.

The wave of opprobrium in the reaction to the arrest of George Michael is evidence of continued censoriousness surrounding homosexual acts. Michelangelo's love poems to Tommaso de 'Cavalieri, an aristocrat half his age, were considered so potentially scandalous that, when first published nearly a century later, all the homosexual references were changed to heterosexual. Britten, of course, used the original text when creating the cycle for his lover, Peter Pears, the first of a number of similarly dedicated works written throughout their 32-year relationship.

Taking his cue from the circumstances of the composition and the elegant formality of concert hall performance, Bartlett used a silent chorus of 14 men, sporting spotless white tie and tails, as witnesses to Toby Spence's powerfully eloquent rendition. Between each song the witnesses grouped and regrouped around the soloist, one assuming the role of the loved one. The silent performance was pitched somewhere between ritual and dance as the men reacted to or enacted the poems' painful sense of love and loss.

The danger of creating movement to partner lyrics is to fall towards obvious mime, but Bartlett's carefully constructed images were allusive rather than literal, with the men adopting attitudes of staring, sneering, wanting or weeping. Atmospheres and emotions were conjured up through the simplicity of Rick Fisher's hard-edged lighting shrouding the near- naked body of a boy in glowing blue light, or 14 doors flying silently in, positioned perfectly behind the performers seemingly scattered about the stage. There may have been echoes of Pina Bausch in the constant fetishistic repositioning of the glossy black bentwood chairs, but the deliberate pace and the emotional restraint was distinctly Bartlett.

The most extraordinary thing about the performance was the space it accorded the scant quarter of an hour of music, allowed to breath across 50 minutes. A mobile phone went off during one of the soundless passages on the night I saw it. Such interruptions tend to be followed by righteous but noisy indignation. But, ironically, it served to answer any doubts about the performance's possibly hermetically sealed reverence. The bleating phone shattered the wrapped silence, but nobody moved a muscle. Even that couldn't kill its still, poetic power.

The music-theatre season continues with Shock-headed Peter on 22 April . Box office: 0181-741 2311

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