Southbank Centre, London
By Will Snell
Bag of Bones is primal precision. A frigid February evening would not deter a full house from journeying to the Southbank Centre’s Purcell Room to take in this new work’s one-stop visit to the capital. Alice Zawadzki’s creation, a warped and dramatic song cycle for and in collaboration with the Manchester Collective revels in the basest of urges in a deeply considered way. Her parade of characters, varied and yet each as obsessive as the last, haunt the stage in turn and draw every ounce of attention the room has at its disposal.
Zawadzki notes that the songs were originally composed separately, and only afterwards did the idea arise – in conjunction with the Collective – to fuse them into a single narrative, facilitated by instrumental interludes. Her inspirations for the music and characters include her Polish roots, her own lived experiences and also – in some cases, she readily explains – nothing at all. She is admirably reluctant to ascribe meaning for the sake of meaning to music, even under fire from the most leading, arty questions.
From the outset, absolute eeriness was achieved. A strange world was inhabited by everyone in the space, each feeling they were the only one to inhabit it. There was a sense, initially, that the performance, given its nature, was a touch too polished, that there was a little more room for the wild to seep through. However, as the work progressed, its complexity, nuance and resultant need for technical precision became increasingly apparent. This technical precision is something the performance did not lack, demanded by Zawadzki’s musical realm; a unique one, blending a host of styles. Cutting-edge classical tropes meet Eastern European folk influences meet something flirting with musical theatre – all gilded with a persistent yet characteristic bluesy tinge.
The intermittence of this strange and compelling procession, brought about by sometimes lengthy passages of selected incidental music, is effective as it maintains both the wonder of Zawadzki’s rare brilliance – musical and dramatic – and a tantalising, steady pace to the spectacle as a whole. The alternating process conjures an alluring air of ceremony. These interludes were deftly chosen to channel the mood between characters’ appearances, but the strings’ reverb that brought potent depth to the fuller passages within the songs themselves, resulted here in a little wooliness.
Bag of Bones is an entirely involving piece of music theatre. Rustic yet precise. Bewildering yet intimate. The viewer is drawn early and remains so. There was absolute synchrony and cohesion between all aspects of this performance and Zawadzki herself is a master.