Between Worlds

Barbican Theatre, London

© Hugo Glendinning

© Hugo Glendinning

To attempt to put on stage the events of 9/11 you might feel, is an act either of supreme folly or chutzpah. In the event it turns out to be neither in this ENO-Barbican co-commission, composer, Tansy Davies, director Deborah Warner with a libretto from writer and poet Nick Drake.

Davies, a young composer completely unknown to me but evidently in the ascendant, her  previous experience as horn player, electric guitarist and vocalist and her interest in the animal world and shamans has led to a wonderfully eclectic pallet on which to draw and series of wide ranging chamber and orchestral commissions.

Such eclecticism is not hard to discern in Between Worlds which follows the contemporary, atonal fashion but within which there is a brevity and sensitivity that makes it breathtakingly accessible. Partly its to do with her delicate intertwining of choral and soloist which in the opening few minutes creates a kind of barely audible, undulating soundscape as Warner’s three levelled cast – a counter-tenor shaman above, watching, whistling and commenting, the second tier office people arriving for work, and the street level chorus, breathe life into a new day. A mother says goodbye to her son; a lover dresses for work beside her new partner, and a janitor meanwhile cleans and prepares the office for a meeting.

Miraculously Michael Levine’s design not only presents us with these three worlds but adds a slowly emerging back projection giving us a view of Manhattan as if looking down from the towers. The effect is at once dramatic, singular and hypnotic. And in the same early moments, a figure glides down from the flies as if dissolving in air – an echo of the iconic photograph of the figure falling from one of the towers that came to symbolise the epic but so human scale of the tragedy.

But as is the way of these things, whilst Between Worlds pays reverent homage to the dead – Drake interleaves snips of Latin requiem with colloquial everyday script  and abstract sounds uttered by the victims in the wake of the trauma and confusion on impact of the aircraft – Davies and Drake’s creation most of all imparts love and an attempt at a kind of redemption through the contact of the living with the dead.

© Hugo Glendinning

© Hugo Glendinning

Nothing is more moving than their final moments when one by one, they extend a hand to each other, and the janitor, with a hand on the heart of each counsels `don’t look down, look up’ and each calls out their love to their family and partners. `I call to you, out of death, I call to give you love.’

The challenge with such a weighted story is how quickly, in trying to make an artefact, it could descend into the banal. In Davies, Drake and Warner’s hands however, there is never any danger, only artistry, seamless precision and the worst of imagined personal moments recharged with fresh meaning. Lives literally held in suspension between worlds made transcendent. Quite wonderful.

Between Worlds is an ENO/Barbican co-commission and is at the Barbican to April 25, 2015


First published in Londongrip, April 2015