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Tabula Rasa review at Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh – ‘the concert element is a fiery revelation’

Jonathan Morton, Sarah Short and members of Scottish Ensemble in Tabula Rasa at Traverse Theatre. Photo: Hugh Carswell Jonathan Morton, Sarah Short and members of Scottish Ensemble in Tabula Rasa at Traverse Theatre. Photo: Hugh Carswell
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The music of Estonian composer Arvo Part is at the forefront of this collaboration between Matthew Lenton’s Vanishing Point and the Scottish Ensemble. The acknowledged significance of Part’s work to patients in palliative care frames the production as a contemplation of death.

Pauline Goldsmith returns to the tone of her Bright Colours Only solo show about an Irish wake, with a meandering story about a nameless woman’s relationship with a man dying of cancer. It is not a quiet death, nor an easy one, in contrast to Goldsmith’s easy, often funny, telling of it.

The Scottish Ensemble’s playing of Part’s four most popular works, which sandwich Goldsmith’s narrative, is far from comforting. Sophia Rahman’s use of an upright piano – and the Traverse’s sharp acoustic – add a harshness of tone, even for Spiegel Im Spiegel. In Fratres, Daniel Pioro paces the stage as aggressively as he attacks the music, while the title work, Tabula Rasa, overcomes the somewhat cloying feeling from which most recorded versions suffer.

Lenton’s staging brings a certain element of theatricality, with the stage rear opening to reveal a glowing head in a hospital bed. A nurse (Sarah Short) reads passages from Marcus Sedgwick’s book, Snow, while the members of the Scottish Ensemble sometimes appear in hospital scrubs, looming out of darkness into Kai Fischer’s crepuscular lighting.

While each element of the production could stand alone – and the concert element is a fiery revelation – the staging is not porous enough to allow them to work together or merge into a whole that is greater than its concept.

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Contemplation of an unquiet death, framed with a fiery performance of Arvo Part's work