Staging Walton and Sitwell's Façade.

Joesph Hardy on preparations for the upcoming ELMG performance.

When I first came to look at Façade, both Walton's setting and Sitwell's original poem cycle, I initially felt daunted by the prospect of the task I had been given. How do you theatrically stage something which might, at first glance, seem like nonsense? It appears there is no dramatic development, no real relationships between anyone, and the only one or two of the characters recur in more than one movement.

Traditionally, the movements are performed as concert pieces, with reciters static at the side of the musicians, almost as if they are songs. Rarely is it performed off-book with theatrical staging (at least to my knowledge). When originally performed, Sitwell herself recited the poems through a primitive megaphone angled through a hole in a painted curtain forming the mouth of a shouting face. The curtain covered both her and the musicians from view as seen in this reconstruction:

So how could we approach the creation of a new and interesting theatrical piece that would reflect the linguistic and musical inventiveness of the work while not impinging on the poetry itself?

Although the text may have been predominantly written for its audacious sonic verve, the more one engages with it the more one realises there is a deeper expression below the surface. Clear themes come through – Britain's colonial past; alcohol; hell, heaven and “going beyond”; the sea and the elements; loss and loneliness; figures from the myths and legends of antiquity – but the images come thick and fast, and are hurled together with such ferocity that it is often hard to grasp any of them on first listening. 

Take the inimitable line in movement 6 Tango-Pasodoblé: “Thetis wrote a treatise noting wheat is silver like the sea; the lovely cheat is sweet as foam; Erotis notices that she...”. When spoken with each syllable a semi-quaver at crotchet = 120 (slower than it should be) this line is hard to get one's tongue around, and almost impossible to get one's ear around, especially considering there is no time to mull it over while the music charges on. The questions “Who is Thetis?”; “Why did she write a treatise?”; “Who or what is the lovely cheat?”; barely have time to cross anyone's mind. To overly dwell on them would, in my opinion, cloud the piece. Quite the contrary: such moments should be delivered in a way that highlights this inability to grasp the meaning, their elusiveness should be embraced. 

Both the oral dexterity and the emotional nuances of the poems are enhanced and extended by Walton's music: in Black Mrs. Behemoth the drama is heightened by the musical stabs; in By the Lake the sense of melancholy is deepened; in Four in the Morning the wistful musings of a forlorn ghost are cushioned in a lugubrious flowing accompaniment; in Tarantella the linguistic flamboyance is pushed by the driving 6/8 rhythms. 

But none of this necessarily helps with staging a coherent theatrical piece!

Originally, I thought we would try to tease out some cohesive narratives that could run through all twenty-one poems, with characters who could come in and out and have plot-lines and development. I quickly came to the realisation that it would not be as simple as that, and that in actual fact we would best serve the text by resisting the temptation to have a real dramatic drive. Rather, I felt, we should present a series of thematically linked short scenes, with certain recurring visual motifs reflecting those within the text. Thus, in our staging of it various stories and characters are to be perceived, but their existences are nearly as ephemeral as the images in the text which inspires them. There are also a few nods to Sitwell's original performance, and our props and staging are intentionally basic and somewhat crude to reflect the anarchic nature of the piece. Often we just take one or two images from each movement and build the scene around that, adding our own interpretation of what the text may or may not mean. Despite the emotional depths of certain movements, we have done our utmost to preserve the frivolity of others. Ultimately, I expect that each individual audience member will have their own take on what it all represents. 

Above all, I hope that our production of it will live up to the subtitle of the piece, “Façade: An Entertainment”, and that there will never be a dull moment. The joy of the lack of a driving narrative is that the audience is never going to be able to guess what is coming next, and I hope they will be left with a sense intrigue (if not confusion) as the multitude of visual, linguistic, and musical images echo in their minds long after the performance has ended. 

Joseph Hardy