‘Akhnaten’, by English National Opera

London Coliseum; 17th March 2016

IMAGE: Tristram Kenton for The Guardian

This luminous production of Philip Glass‘ 1983 opera Akhnaten bathes the senses in rich sonic and visual colour that sears the tantalising character of the titular Egyptian pharaoh – and his revolutionary reign – into the brain. Director Phelim McDermott takes Glass’ score and extends the composition so that bodies, costumes, light and juggled objects become additional instruments played in harmony with the orchestra to create a decorous whole. It’s been a long time since a show has held me completely transfixed from start to finish yet, with a running time of 2hrs 55 (including two intervals), Akhnaten doesn’t feels overlong for a second.

IMAGE: Richard Hubert Smith

The production has been choreographed by Sean Gandini, which is what drew me here in the first place. As if on a mission to prove juggling can stand its ground among the traditionally regarded ‘high arts’, the Gandini Juggling founder has moved from last year’s collaboration with classical ballet dancers to the English National Opera, bringing an ensemble of nine other jugglers along with him.

The art of juggling has a lineage that can be traced back to the wall paintings of ancient Egyptians, and their use  of spheres to conjure imagery of heavenly objects is particularly relevant here. The story of Akhnaten follows the rule of a man who broke with all tradition to discard the pantheon of Egyptian gods and form a new national religion that worshiped the sun as universal life-giver.

IMAGE: Richard Hubert Smith

At once both in the world of the pharaohs and out of it, the ‘skills ensemble’ of jugglers are Tedros Girmaye, Doreen Grossman, Francesca Mari, Christopher Patfield, Owen Reynolds, Iñaki Sastre Fernandez, Binyam and Mehari (Bibi and Bichu) Tesfamariam and Kati Ylä-Hokkala, bringing a welcome mix of ethnicities to the overall company. Dressed in tightly hooded bodysuits patterned like cracked stone, they form a bridge between the physical and metaphysical, from their first appearance as animal headed gods to their last incarnation as the slowly rolling passage of time.

IMAGE: Tristram Kenton for The Guardian
IMAGE: Tristram Kenton for The Guardian

I think of time a lot during this show. The stage curtain of turquoise and gold creates a seamless blend from the marbled blood and sand of the theatre’s present architecture into the historical world of the opera. The overture of subtle changes – in Glass’ cycling string phrases and Bruno Poet‘s iridescent lighting – as we watch hieroglyph style designs pass in projection across the curtain, builds a sense of time passing. An image approximating a staircase portends ups and downs to come. Akhnaten is both a universal elegy to glories that must always pass, and a hubristic tragedy taken from the biography of one man. The programme notes that, according to scholar Immanuel Velikovsky, the Oedipus myth originated from the lifetime of Akhnaten, and this production carries the same feel of greatness and unavoidable fate as the tale of the Greek king.

IMAGE: Richard Hubert Smith

Tom Pye‘s set is made of unflinchingly modern materials, while Kevin Pollard‘s opulent costumes combine period and contemporary details. The tomb of Akhenaten’s father that greets us as the curtain rises is seen both as it was created thousands of years ago, and as it was discovered by forensic archaeologists of a future time. In the final act we are reminded again of the overlapping timelines of this story, and I feel immensely moved by the vastness of history and our microscopic place within its revolutions.

The show begins with a funeral, and the coronation of the new Pharaoh (Anthony Roth Constanzo). A three-tier palace sandwiches the chorus of thirty or so singers between the ritual activity of the court on the stage below and the old gods lined up above. Among the gods, we see the signature Gandini juggling style of short, repeated patterns with minimal tossing and significant weaving of the arms and upper body, that evolve like the notes of the musical score, performed in canon or synchronised as a team. Down below, members of the chorus each hold and manipulate a single ball, and it’s mesmerising to watch so many movements simultaneously. Later the skills ensemble perform on the stage level, and I love seeing how the different arrangement of space turns the ritual from mourning to celebration. When a ball drops, the moment has been cleverly prepared for, transforming smoothly into a gesture of obeisance rather than appearing as any kind of failure.

IMAGE: Richard Hubert Smith

Akhnaten climbs to the next level of the palace to be met by his wife, Nefertiti (Emma Carrington) and mother, Tye (Rebecca Bottone), and the three sing a promise of ambition. All the words in the opera come from original texts, in Egyptian, Hebrew, or translated into English. It’s not necessary to understand the words though, to hear and read the story. The two women are strong influences on the Pharaoh throughout, and there is a surprising contrast between the high notes of Roth’s countertenor, and the lower sounds of his wife (Carrington is a mezzo-soprano, but the part can also be played by an alto). Images and evidence of Akhnaten’s reign have led to uncertainty over his physiology and gender assignment, which is also acknowledged in the nude-effect costuming beneath the principles’ flowing gauzes.

Act two moves forwards to the banishing of those who follow the old religions, with the skills ensemble taking on the roles of security, or avenging angels. Golden vials that had been placed around the temple turn out to be juggling clubs, which become symbols of attack. I’m particularly struck by the novel image of three clubs magnetised to form a bow and arrow motif. A duet between Akhnaten and his wife includes tones of challenge and accord within the loving words, and the matched pitch of the two voices shows a compatibility of souls and strengths.

akhnaten tk
IMAGE: Tristram Kenton for The Guardian

A plan is made to find and build a new city, the ‘City of the Horizon of Aten’. Words are recited by the sonorous and imposing narrator Zachary James, who is also a connection to the world of the dead, and the skills ensemble place and roll sets of three balls on the floor in front of them in gestures of mapping and landscaping. As the jugglers begin to rise and travel towards their creation, James joins them in a passing and criss-crossing choreography of balls and bodies, and a giant spherical moon is revealed floating in the centre of the stage. Balls are substituted for plastic orbs, like silvery beachballs in varying sizes, and these are tossed around the stage in a vision of lightness for the future.

IMAGE: Richard Hubert Smith

The central balloon darkens to pink in a representation of sunset, and Akhnaten communes with his universal god in an intimate moment for a man more often a public icon. The melody switches from Roth’s vocals to the brass of the orchestra and back with a seamless quality of tone that gives the words magical radiance, till night becomes again pink dawn. This show must be a photographer’s dream.

The final act depicts the destruction of all the Pharaoh built, showing us first a putrefying kind of decadence as the royal family seclude themselves in a gold box of a room, the princesses bound together by their matted strands of hair. The skills ensemble, once on the ruler’s side, have deserted the him, representing the voices of unsatisfied citizens while lying on the floor tossing wave after wave of complaints into the air as James recites from letters of dissent. The chorus who, during act two, were only heard from off-stage, return to overthrow Akhnaten. A drumming pattern that sounds almost like a frenzied circus march plays as the jugglers repeatedly toss and drop 5-ball cascades, and the Pharaoh is brought to a shuddering death in the arms of James.

Anthony Roth Costanzo (Akhnaten), centre, in English National Opera's production of Akhnaten by Philip Glass @ Coliseum, London. directed by Phelim McDermott. Conductor, Karen Kamensek. (Taken 26-02-16) ©Tristram Kenton 02/16 (3 Raveley Street, LONDON NW5 2HX TEL 0207 267 5550 Mob 07973 617 355)email: tristram@tristramkenton.com
IMAGE: Tristram Kenton for The Guardian

Watching one religion claim truth and sovereignty over an opposing system through the lens of long-lost beliefs helps give a clearer angle on the pointlessness of contemporary religious conflicts and, as the stage fades into a modern lecture-hall, I’m hit with unexpected tears at the sheer power of time. At all that was lost and all that will, always, be lost.

I have learnt more history from this show than I ever remembered from school, and am reminded that, for all his greatness in changing the world around him, Akhnaten was just human, as are we all. The music finishes before the lights darken and we are left with a parade of crawling bodies, exposing that animal action that marks the beginning and end of life, and a set of spheres that roll on and on.

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