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The String Quartet’s Guide to Sex and Anxiety review at Theatre Royal Brighton – ‘a muddled montage of misey’

Miltos Yerolemou in The String Quartet's Guide to Sex and Anxiety at Theatre Royal Brighton. Photo: Robert Day
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It’s hard to imagine a better evocation of frayed nerves than Ligeti’s String Quartet No 2. This modern chamber classic starts with a violent pluck, then shifts dramatically between passages of shivering tremolo or creeping glissando and jagged fortissimo attacks. It is music as texture, and anyone who has suffered from acute anxiety will know the feeling.

Spanish director Calixto Bieito – once dubbed the Tarantino of theatre for his graphic interpretations of classic operas – has taken the quartet as spark and structure for his striking but problematic new Brighton Festival co-commission.

In The String Quartet’s Guide to Sex and Anxiety, the four musicians of the Heath Quartet are matched by four actors, delivering extracts from the likes of Anne Sexton, Kierkegaard and Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy.

It’s a montage of misery with added theatrical edge. The cast make creative use of surplus music stands. At one point, the backdrop of stacked chairs crashes down on to the stage.

The performances are gripping. Cathy Tyson’s delivery of Stig Dagerman’s To Kill a Boy is heartrendingly controlled, while Nick Harris offers comic relief as a cardiganed “bundle of phobias”. But the piece muddles anxiety with depression, melancholia with mourning, existential dread with trauma, and 1621 with 2018 in a manner that interferes with its attempts to understand the origins of such feelings.

Its theatrical worth, and its source of consolation, lies in the under-realised relationship between the actors and musicians. The characters move from being played by the music, to finding expression through it.


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A striking and grippingly performed but muddled montage of misery