Review: Thomas Tallis (Wanamaker Theatre, Sunday 27 July 2014)
Thomas Tallis/Dr Dee – Brendan O’Hea
Henry VIII/Priest – Simon Harrison
Elizabeth I/Queen Catherine/Mrs Prest – Susie Trayling
Kirsty Hopkins (Soprano)
Alexandra Kidgell (Soprano)
William Purefoy (Countertenor)
Jeremy Budd (Tenor)
Tom Raskin (Tenor)
Ben Davies (Bass)
Director – Adele Thomas
Designer – Hannah Clark
Jessica Swale (Playwright)
The Wanamaker Theatre is making a name for itself in terms of some original productions.
Earlier this year I enjoyed their production of Cavalli’s L’Ormindo and I will be returning to listen to Trevor Pinnock celebrate the life of JS and CPE Bach in a few weeks and next year a dramatization of the life of Farinelli.
On this occasion, playwright Jessica Swale teamed up with members of The Sixteen to recount the life of Thomas Tallis. Almost like a triptych, Swale recounted his life under four Tudor monarchs – Henry VIII, Edward VI, Queen Mary and Elizabeth I. For each he wrote music that underlined their own beliefs in the role of music in religion and court.
But incredibly little is known of the man himself and Swale’s play combined – at times fanciful – theatre and Tallis’ music. Although economically done, there were moments of real magic. The realization of Edward VI’s single melody religious music was smartly done using the theatre’s own corridors for example. The end, with its evocation of the crucifixation, was also atmospheric and only slightly ruined – for me at least – by the appearance of someone more suited to Aladdin that Elizabethan England. The strange juxtaposition of period costume and anonymous soldiers in modern garb jarred slightly and I can only imagine was due to limited budget and the fact that halberds are slightly too dangerous to carry in such an enclosed space.
As we know so little about Tallis, Brendan O’Hea’s portrayal was both confident and assured but it was Simon Harrison who held the stage more brightly, bringing a tense and sensual allure to Henry VII and an almost righteous anger to the Priest of Waltham Abbey.
Sadly, the handling of the music was, ultimately, less than effective. A shaky start exposed how difficult Tallis’ music is to perform with both fluidity and grace, and in the very dry acoustic of this theatre the music suffered. Also I think too much emphasis was placed on fully integrating the music into the drama, using the stage and spaces of the theatre simply because they were. Perhaps it would be been more effective to have increased the number of singers and positioned them in the gallery space above the stage? From there they could still have provided the much-needed commentary to stich the play together but also more importantly provided much needed vocal opulence and depth. Additionally, more attention was needed with regards to dynamics and shaping Tallis’ lines and while the selections were varied, they never felt truly representative of Tallis’ prodigious talent.
And also interestingly, no mention of Tallis’ seminal relationship with Wiliam Byrd.
By the end, Swales’ Thomas Tallis felt unfinished. Despite occasional moments, this felt more like a canter through Tudor history than the exposition of one of the period’s greatest composers.