First Night: Gaddafi: A living myth, English National Opera, London

Not exactly opera, but it makes the perfect PC musical

Michael Church
Friday 08 September 2006 00:21
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Wheels grind slow in the opera world, and sometimes all the better for it. Three years ago, Steve "Chandrasonic" Savale persuaded the then boss of English National Opera to commission his raga-rap Asian Dub Foundation to create a piece about Muammar Gaddafi. Time passed, the boss was sacked, more gestation-time was granted, and the world moved on: the easy political certainties of 2003 gave way to the swirling doubt by which we're now surrounded, where friends and foes are hard to tell apart.

As Savale points out in his programme note, there's a plethora of ways in which we can view Gaddafi: brutal tyrant and purveyor of terrorism? Misrepresented national hero, anti-imperialist champion of the oppressed? Or just a marginal figure whom oil has thrust into the limelight? What Savale claims to offer - and what the Libyan embassy bought tickets en masse last night to see - is an "audio-visual re-imagining of the myth".

It's clear from the outset that we're in for a very fast canter through 80 years of history, and designer Es Devlin wastes no time. Her notion of Libya is as a blank canvas, on which Gaddafi is given licence to paint. Each new political event invites a new layer of paper, plus a fresh flurry of video projections. History is made and remade. And it works: different coloured lights seen through incised paper make a dainty palace for King Idris, which cuts immediately to the Six Day War done in giant headlines with archive footage of fighting in the desert.

Warned by director David Freeman that this is not a musical, and that "there's not much singing in it", one can readily accept that this is basically a spoken drama plus soundtrack. It begins pretty creakily, like an old-fashioned son et lumiere, but soon builds momentum.

Ramon Tikaram's blustering Gaddafi - with a hint of depressive, paranoid depths - intones his lines (which have more than a touch of the Rupert Bear) over a pre-recorded drumming track, and at moments is almost endearing. But though no "composer" is credited, this is very much Asian Dub Foundation's show. As part of our aural furniture, their style is a known quality, and it's both loud and crude: when the massed strings in the pit come in at the beginning, backed by synthesised sound from elsewhere, one feels almost sorry for the little figures on stage, miked though they are.

So will this work, as ENO boss John Berry avers, "redefine opera"? Hardly. But if some West End producer is looking for an impeccably PC musical, this could be it.

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