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The Second Violinist review at Barbican Theatre, London – ‘innovative and absorbing’

Aaron Monaghan in The Second Violinist. Photo: Patrick Redmond
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Following their first opera The Last Hotel, a chilling tale in which a couple helps a woman to commit suicide, composer Donnacha Dennehy and writer Enda Walsh have collaborated again on another dark scenario, The Second Violinist.

The opera centres on Martin, an orchestral violinist, who emerges out of the orchestral pit – forming the lowest part of a striking three-layer stage design. He is, or has been, married but we never see his spouse. What we see is a loner, a voiceless protagonist (he neither speaks nor sings), diverting himself from a barrage of voicemails and gossip by playing combat video games and checking his Tinder profile. A large screen relays the contents of his phone screen, drawing us into his world with a mildly unsettling feel of intrusion.

In the main, central plane of the set, Martin’s flat overlaps with that of Matthew and Amy, who are entertaining Amy’s college friend Hannah – these are the singing roles. The two flats are notionally separate in time or space but Martin is a spectator – or is he reminiscing? – as Matthew and Amy’s marriage fails, with spectacularly violent results. The uppermost level on stage reveals a forest: a place of escape or, possibly, in whatever sense, burial.

Donnacha Dennehy’s score is rooted in the Renaissance sound-world of Carlo Gesualdo – Martin’s favourite composer, who happened to murder his wife and her lover. This, along with actor Aaron Monaghan’s ability to articulate the intensity of Martin’s despair and the brilliant integration of video design that allows a window into Martin’s world, makes for a piece of unusual theatrical force.

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Innovative, absorbing dark tale of a loser in life alone in a crowd