City of Edinburgh Methodist Church
By Svend-Einar Brown
Something Rich and Strange celebrated Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary with choral settings of his work and scenes acted from his plays. Between them, the Scottish Chamber Choir, the Edinburgh University Theatre Company and the Edinburgh University Shakespeare Society delivered a phenomenal amount of material from thirteen plays and the sonnets. With a cast of young and inexperienced actors, the evening may have been stronger with fewer scenes given at greater length – and some choices were over-ambitious: launching into the death of Cordelia from a standing start is something a seasoned pro would baulk at, let alone a young actor. Hats off to them all for establishing as much variety of character and atmosphere as they did, most notably Jennifer Jones, whose Fool linked key moments throughout.
Grace Lyle’s staging allowed segues between music and drama to flow well, with the choir at the back and the forestage clear for actors to come and go. Thoughtful multi-purposing of texts created a kind of stream-of-consciousness effect: as the choir sang ‘Something wicked this way comes…‘, it was not Macbeth but Hamlet’s ghost that appeared. ‘Fear no more the heat o’th’sun’ set the scene for Cleopatra’s death. We could have done with much more of this, as other transitions were simply too sharp – from Hamlet’s Denmark to the forest of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a leap too far.
In a programme like this, the choir never gets to sing for more than a few minutes at a time, so has little chance to get into its stride. That can weaken tuning and concentration, but under director Iain McLarty, the SCC kept focus well, making their strongest impact in songs by Vaughan-Williams and Jaakko Mäntyjärvi. Occasionally their small size left them over-exposed, as in the more demanding close harmonies of pieces like ‘If music be the food of love’ by Richard Allain. All credit is due for taking on so many recent works, but one or two fewer, rehearsed more fully, might have been stronger.
The best thing about this evening was its strong sense of community. The very mixed audience made their appreciation clear, and since the choir faced us from behind the actors, there was the incidental pleasure of seeing the enjoyment in their faces as they watched the thesps do their stuff. All in all, a heart-warming celebration of Shakespeare.