Sunday, 20 November 2011

Pass The Spoon - David Shrigley's 'Sort Of Opera'

In Scottish Opera's top floor rehearsal room, all talk is of
appendages. The phallic attachment in question is for Mr Granules, a
grotesque dinner guest in Pass The Spoon, visual artist David
Shrigley's 'sort of opera' for director Nicholas Bone's Magnetic North
company. Based around an absurd idea of a daytime TV cookery show, Pass
The Spoon features characters that include a life-size banana and an
alcoholic, manic depressive, mood-swinging giant egg.

Actor Gavin Mitchell has already donned a foam-based egg costume for
his turn as Mr Egg. This provoked much debate about whether or not the
foam egg should have holes for arms. With Mitchell's hands flapping
about in a ridiculously limited circumference to express Mr Egg's full
emotional range, Humpty Dumpty he most certainly isn't. If the egg does
have arms, Shrigley points out, then every movement will pull its
flexible but none too taut construction out of shape enough so it stops
being egg-shaped. Another alternative would be to start from scratch
and construct a costume made of tougher material, perhaps with the top
lopped off to allow Mitchell's head and shoulders to peep through.

As for Mr Granules, the size and shape of what the two-metre high
puppet operated by Tobias Wilson will look like is everything. In
spirit, at least, one imagines him resembling the gluttonous Mr
Creosote from Monty Python's The Meaning of Life.

Earlier, Pauline Knowles and Stewart Cairns as June Spoon and Philip
Fork prepared their culinary delights in camera-friendly showbiz style.
Opera singer Peter van Hulle flits between them as a Butcher, while
repetiteur Michael Bawtree plays composer David Fennessy's score which
is set to be embellished by a ten-piece version of The Red Note
Ensemble. The nonsense that follows looks to Come Dine With Me and
Ready, Steady Cook by way of The Mad Hatter's Tea Party from Alice in
Wonderland if co-opted to take part in It's A Knockout. In short, then,
Pass The Spoon is as ridiculously overblown as any other opera, sort-of
or otherwise.

“There's a whole process of trying to find the strange world it takes
place in,” says Bone over a healthy-looking and mercifully immobile
lunch. “It's a very Shrigleyesque idea of a TV studio it's set in, and
a lot of the last two and a half weeks of rehearsals has been to make
sense of these characters in their lack of sense. We also have to
balance that up with what's in David's head, because he has quite a
clear idea of what they're like. So it's been quite a strange thing,
trying to make David's two-dimensional drawings into three-dimensional
characters.”

This is the complete reverse of something like Disney's stage rendering
of their animated feature film, Beauty and the Beast. In the live
show's multi-million pound franchise, actors are effectively recreating
their pen and ink big-screen forbears in a hi-tech affair with little
opportunity for any real onstage creativity. Anyone expecting Pass the
Spoon to be some flesh and blood recreation of Shrigley's drawings,
then, should think again.

“Creatively, I was interested in writing the dialogue,” Shrigley says.
“but visually it's not really based on my classic style. If it was an
animated film, then obviously it would be, but with real people that's
not the case, and there wouldn't be any reason for that to happen. It's
set in a TV kitchen, so it needs to look like one, albeit one with a
small chamber orchestra and people dressed as food-stuffs in it.”

Pass The Spoon was born after Bone and Fennessy were asked to put in a
proposal for one of Scottish Opera's Five:15 series of fifteen minute
works. Fennessy suggested Shrigley as a collaborator after recognising
something in his drawings that he felt lent itself to music. The
Five:15 idea went elsewhere, allowing Shrigley's initial scraps of
dialogue to be developed into what he calls “a big long rambling script
about a TV programme”. A first draft set over the five courses of a
meal was the result. Enabled by a Creative Scotland Vital Spark Award,
Pass The Spoon has since developed into Magnetic North's biggest
production to date.

It also marks the latest high-profile work featuring a hybrid of
art-forms, something which has become increasingly prevalent over the
last few years.

“It's interesting how someone from a different artform looks at things
differently,” Bone observes. “What's really interesting about David is
that he works very instinctively. He's very back brain.”

“I suppose it's always going to be a bit crazy, because opera is
crazy,” Shrigley says, as if to illustrate Bone's point. “It had to be
set somewhere, and I guess I just figured you needed to acknowledge
that the actors were in front of an audience. A format I was familiar
with was a TV programme, and a cookery programme lends itself to a
narrative because there's a recipe. I guess a recipe's a list of things
to do, and I like lists, so that made sense to me, but I dunno. The
fact that most of it's fun makes it really daft, anyway, and it meant I
could do whatever I wanted to.”

For all its daftness, Pass The Spoon is a musically complex affair.

“I like Dave's music,” Shrigley says. “If someone else had've asked me
to do something with music I wasn't really into, then I probably
wouldn't have done it.”

Pass The Spoon isn't Shrigley's first involvement with music. He once
played in a band called Par Cark with Turner Prize winner Richard
Wright, and has released his own spoken-word album, Shrigley Forced To
Speak With Others. Shrigley wrote Worried Noodles, a compilation of
thirty-nine songs recorded by the likes of David Byrne, Franz Ferdinand
and Aidan Moffat. Beyond his own releases, Shrigley has supplied album
cover art for Deerhoof and Malcolm Middleton, and has made videos for
Blur and 'Bonnie' Prince Billy.

Composer Fennessy's work has previously appeared at the likes of
Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, who co-commissioned his
organ-based Big Lung project with Stirling's Le Weekend festival, which
was first performed at the Church of the Holy Rude. Fennessy also
wrote The Adding Machine, a short opera performed by The Paragon
Ensemble which featured a libretto by playwright Tom McGrath, who if he
were still alive would undoubtedly approve of such musical and dramatic
audacity as that contained in Pass The Spoon. Two of McGrath's later
works, The Dream Train and My Old Man, were produced by Magnetic North.

The presence of The Red Note Ensemble, the contemporary classical
ensemble led by composer John Harris, is also significant. Red Note
recently performed Philip Glass' science-fiction opera, 1000 Airplanes
on the Roof, and Brian Eno's Music For Airports at the recent Minimal
festival. All of which squares with Shrigley's notion that “If this
work's written about it might be written about in [left-field music
magazine] The Wire, and that's very much the kind of credence that I
would need to be impressed by anybody.”

Beyond its short Tramway run, Pass The Spoon will get a one-off airing
on the South Bank to accompany a major Shrigley exhibition at the
Hayward Gallery in 2012. Shrigley can't foresee himself exploring opera
any further.

“I know nothing about opera, composition or written-down music,” he
says. “I'm just quite excited by the unfamiliarity of it all.”

Pass The Spoon, Tramway, Glasgow, November 17th-19th
www.tramway.org

The Herald, November 15th 2011

ends

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