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Hotspur/Pierrot Lunaire review at Arcola Theatre – ‘a contrasting double bill’

Joanna Roughton-Arnold in Hotspur/Pierrot Lunaire at Arcola Theatre, London
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With music and words respectively by New Zealanders Gillian Whitehead and Fleur Adcock, Hotspur (1980) centres on Elizabeth Mortimer (1371–1417), the wife of the nobleman and rebel Sir Henry ‘Hotspur’ Percy (who appears in Richard II and Henry IV Part 1, and whose descendants lent their name to Tottenham Hotspur FC).

In this performance co-produced by FormidAbility, which combines disabled and non-disabled artists, the soprano Joanne Roughton-Arnold is accompanied not only by the required five-piece ensemble, but also by the expressive movement of Isolte Avila from Signdance Collective International.

Whitehead’s score – though it carries some dramatic variety and references to the folk ballad – is abstract, static and austere. No real surprise, then, that Roughton-Arnold creates an atmosphere of tense emotion, with little else on the palette.

There was much more vocal nuance when Roughton-Arnold returned for Pierrot Lunaire, the song-cycle cum melodrama (1912) in which Schoenberg pioneered the hybrid speech-song technique Sprechgesang.

As in Hotspur, silences tend to be abrupt, rather than folded into the music’s fabric, and the sideways glances to catch the conductor’s cues halt the magic. But magic there often was in Roughton-Arnold’s vocalising, ranging from the most delicate sliding between pitches and most hushed of consonants – jewels of musical noise in themselves – to grim violence.

For this piece, the Signdance movement comes from David Bower, embodying the titular commedia dell’arte character with props including red gloves (for the bloodied hands in Red Mass) and a violin bow (for Serenade). The ensemble gives an alert performance under Scott Wilson.

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A double bill of two contrasting monodramas in which one comfortably eclipses the other