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Particularly frustrating

ROBERT HUGILL on Jonathan Kent's staging
of 'A Child of Our Time'


It was perhaps inevitable that the co-incidence of the anniversaries of Tippett (100 years since his birth) and the liberation of Auschwitz (60 years) should suggest performances of Tippett's oratorio A Child of Our Time. At the London Coliseum on Friday 21 January 2005, English National Opera took this further and presented the work staged by Jonathan Kent. Kent's production opened on a darkened stage, the chorus crouching, invisible. The set was basic black, visual drama came from some thrilling lighting (lighting designer Mark Henderson). Gradually the chorus became more visible, dressed in a motley selection of black clothes. Perhaps we were in a refugee camp.

The problem with Tippett's oratorio is that, though it tells a dramatic story, it does so in a diffuse fashion; the soloists play no particular roles. Dramatising it is akin to trying to dramatise Messiah (a work whose construction influenced Tippett).

So Jonathan Kent's job was to produce some affecting stage pictures, akin to a choreographer. And, with movement director Linda Dobell, this he did by and large.

When things turned nasty, the crowd stripped and killed a group of refugees; one young man, clad only in a pair of dingy underpants, survives and becomes the young man who commits the assassination which is at the heart of the oratorio. But he also represents a sacrificial victim. At the end of part 2, after the assassination, he is buried only to be reborn with a tree at the opening of part 3.

A scene from 'A Child of Our Time' at English National Opera. Photo © Neil Libbert
A scene from 'A Child of Our Time' at English National Opera. Photo © Neil Libbert

In this part, where Tippett leaves drama behind and concentrates on more philosophical matters, Kent's dramatic sense seems to have run aground a little. The tree burst into flames, to provide a thrilling dramatic moment, but as a sign of rebirth and reconciliation the chorus took their shoes and socks off (well the men did, the women just took their shoes off and left their tights on) and stood on little squares of grass.

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Copyright © 25 January 2005 Robert Hugill, London UK


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