Theatre review: Songs: A Play With Music

by **

Dear Dad

The War is over. Ruby Red is in prison, awaiting trial for writing an opera that is believed to have incited the Holocaust. Her daughter, Little Blue, whom Ruby installed as the protagonist in that opera before the war, arrives to visit. Armed with daggers of contempt and recrimination, Little Blue demands answers to questions about her mother’s morality, hypocrisy and betrayal of trust.

Cheyney Caddy’s Songs: A Play With Music is a story not so much about songs or the legacy of those songs but the untold stories behind those songs. Adapted from Harlan: In the Shadow of Jud Suss — a 2008 programme which documented responses by the family of the notorious Veit Harlan whose infamous anti-semitic film Jud Suss saw him tried for Crimes Against Humanity –Caddy’s production is provocative, intense and deeply intelligent.

Through a relentless cycle of metaphorical stories and recollections, Ruby and Blue each offer compelling insights into their psychological self-justifications and personal indignation, thereupon unveiling an uncomfortable conundrum about issues of justice and of truth.

As Ruby tells of a family whose idyllic life filled with music is torn asunder by the thud of war until the daughter’s melodious voice under her mother’s instruction leads them all into salvation, Blue reminds her mother of the lecture she gave her as a child about how stories once told, like toothpaste squeezed from a tube, cannot be retrieved and are no longer of the story-teller. Then, in revealing the story of the opera she wrote subsequent to her incriminating work, Ruby again justifies the unintended ramifications of a mother’s actions in raising a lion cub, with her family’s interests at heart, while all the time deluding herself about its growing lion’s needs. And to this, Blue gives her own fairy-tale about the way an expecting woman betrays the ingenuous trust of a bird, a rabbit and a deer for a queenly feast only to be punished with a baby bearing a scar from her throat to her belly.

And weaving through the narrative  — indeed, narratives within the narrative — as nothing less than a third character, is Tiffani Walton’s original music score. At the piano, leading Phoebe Lindner (violinist), Jennifer Mills (cellist) and Leonie O’Donnell (vocalist), Walton skilfully works her exceptional composition and evocative lyrics into telling the stories and building atmosphere with imperceptibility and taste.

On Caddy’s spartan set that suitably reflects the bleak political landscape of the time, with lightings brilliantly executed by Tom Middlemarch and Jacob Thomas, this highly creative piece of theatre also benefits immeasurably from the extraordinary talents of Francesca Bianchi and Emily Thomas.

Bianchi, who delivers handsomely as Ruby (despite a cold on attendance night) is somewhat reminiscent of Henna, played by Kate Winslet, in the film adapted from Bernhard Schlink’s novel The Reader. With lips resolutely pursed, she is stoic and poised, unwavering in her conviction that she is no more than a scapegoat who has sacrificed herself for her family, insistent that the public’s adulation of her art was totally beyond her will. Nevertheless, embedded in her dignity — etched on her features — is an unmistakable sense of anguish and helpless bitterness.

Thomas’ Blue, too, is tremendous. Her seamless transfigurations — between the aggrieved adult daughter who resents Ruby’s immorality and fears public ostracism because of her, and the indoctrinated little girl she used to be, dropping obnoxious racist remarks about a Jewish kid at school or the fib-prone child squirming with shame — are altogether outstanding. She is torn between wanting her mother to confess the truth and wanting her to deny it all — for in the truth, she knows, she herself is complicit.

By opening the production with a scene that lets on about Little Blue’s malevolent nature — she picks up a snail that survives her malicious experiment and crushes it under her feet, wiping the slime off her shoes with disgust and glee — Caddy is subtle but plain in articulating her underlying message.

Interwoven through the play is a thread that follows Little Blue’s encounter with a Jewish body in the river. While she suggests involvement of her brother, her father or her mother on each recounting, the denouement surprises us with an unexpected revelation.

Directing this exquisite work with supreme sensitivity and control, Caddy manages her subject matter with subtlety and tact. As family members speak out against the shameful acts of their convicted relations, Songs: A Play With Music questions the stories behind the songs, the truth behind those stories.