The Coronet Theatre, Elephant and Castle, London
By Lauren Keefer
The venue itself was hard to define. Though it currently tends to host eclectic club nights, the 137-year-old Coronet Theatre previously served as a 19th-century art deco theatre and cinema, welcoming performers ranging from Charlie Chaplin to Oasis. With its plush seats set upon rough, unfinished floors, it was a fittingly paradoxical setting for Dutch composer Michel van der Aa’s UK premiere, mixing spoken word, film and orchestral music from the London Sinfonietta.
The source of inspiration was The Book of Disquiet, a work which similarly eludes the categorisable and conventional. Its author, Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, wrote under the guise of more than seventy assumed identities, or ‘heteronyms’, each with their own views, biographies, and even horoscopes. This so-called ‘factless autobiography’ purports to be written by one of them, Bernardo Soares: a Lisbon book keeper, who represents the less rational side of Pessoa.
Here his fragmented musings fell to actor Samuel West, who delivered them in a brilliantly spoken monologue. He fully captured the inner turmoil of a man living with heteronyms – imaginary characters he strove to understand as much as the audience – while a series of disconnected video images brought these characters to life. We saw a retired major, a Lisbon street-sweeper, a girl that Soares met once and continued to yearn for. Meanwhile, Van der Aa’s score contrasted periods of calm with frenzied strings, as if it too had fallen victim to Soares’s sudden mood swings. It all added up to a haunting, dreamlike experience, reinforced when, at one point, West evoked a mental image of glass separating his observations from the rest of reality. And, calling upon practically every element of performance art, it cleverly portrayed the confusion of a man caught in the midst of a seemingly perpetual identity crisis.