Bow Down, The Village Underground, Shoreditch

Helen Wallace on a gritty evening, courtesy of Harrison Birtwistle and Tony Harrison

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Sometimes necessity is the mother of invention. When staff staged a six-month strike at the National Theatre in 1977 two gritty northerners Harrison Birtwistle and Tony Harrison stepped in with Bow Down, a ‘folk opera’ which stuck two fingers up to the paraphernalia of theatre and its artistes. Using six multi-disciplined young actors to tell an old folktale of two sisters who loved the same man, it’s an ingeniously structured work in which the distinctions between character, musician or speaker are constantly blurred in a whirl of repetitions and variants around which the central tragedy unfolds.

It was a bold choice for Frederic Wake-Walker in his role as artistic director of the Opera Group. There’s barely any actual ‘music’ (at one point an actor confronts the audience with ‘…and he thought he was here for an opera!’), but in true Birtwistle style the skeleton and sinew of the drama is built through sound. Each atmosphere is precisely conjured, from the breathy voices of the opening culminating in the sisters’ screams, to the formal scraping of spades on concrete which accompanies the first recitation of the story in old English, to the synchronised dropping of chains or rubbing of sandpaper. If it sounds like an afternoon in B&Q, there are musical lines from flute, recorders and oboe too, all the more striking for their sparseness, while many of Harrison’s couplets are piercing in their stark beauty. The flautist-lover stalks around each sister with a barbed necklace of menacing melody. The dead twang of an improvised harp evokes the ghost of the dead victim, drowned by her jealous sister more effectively than any aria.

The tension collapses in the middle for a spot of Harrison-ian lewd comedy, involving some explicit necrophilia. It’s the greatest test of the male actors to pull off knockabout filth in the midst of such a formally enigmatic work, and they don’t quite manage it. In fact, it’s at that point one realises what an opera this really is, in which every beat, every nuance, every pitch tells.

Wailing sirens out in Shoreditch wove their way into the soundscape. No doubt the sounds of a forest clearing will enhance performances at the Latitude Festival (12,14 July)