Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Noye's Fludde, Part Two [On The Night]

I enter a very, very buzzy Shrewsbury Abbey. Children everywhere. Pews filling up. The production isn’t due to start for the next half hour, but you can see how packed the Abbey’s going to be with Mums, Dads, Grannies, Grandpas, little kids, big brothers and sisters, lovers of the work of Benjamin Britten, those who’ve never heard it until now, and just the plain curious, which includes me.

The man next to me says his daughter is playing an elephant.  I say I’ll look out for the elephants. 

The orchestra tunes up. The side aisles are illuminated, but the pews and central aisle are in semi-darkness. Up on the screen behind the stage [a huge arched screen taking advantage of the Abbey’s full height] an image of Shrewsbury under flood is projected.  The image changes. Can that possibly be Coleham by the fish and chip shop?  It changes again. Duckboards are stretching all the way down Frankwell. It changes yet again, and suddenly there’s the Abbey standing in a vast lake, its reflection mirror-glass perfect. For anybody who’s ever seen the River Severn in flood, it’s hard to believe that anything so destructive could ever look so calm.

I’m still thinking this when Mrs Powell-Davies, Shrewsbury High School’s Musical Director, stands up. Good evening. Welcome.  Mobiles off.  No photography, unfortunately.  Can I run you through the songs you’ll be invited to sing. One of them will be a round, so we need to do some practicing.

‘Lord Jesus, think on me,’ we sing in a lovely, solemn minor key.  ‘Purge away my sins….’ ‘From earthbound passions set us free…’ ‘For those in peril on the sea…’

Mrs Powell-Davies steps down. God climbs into the pulpit. With a crash of cymbals, the show is finally on the road. Clouds fill the screen behind the stage. God’s angry with mankind and only one man is worth saving. You know the story.

Noye starts building his Ark, but gets laughed at by his wife. If ever I saw a mismatched pair, these two are it.  Even when the animals start entering the Ark [two by two, of course] Mrs Noye refuses to take her husband seriously.  There are animals everywhere trying to pack into the Ark, but she’s round the town hanging out with her Gossips. 

The sky darkens. Rain starts falling. ‘Wife, come in!’ sings Noye.  ‘I will not!’ Mrs Noye replies. The water’s rising by now. The Ark begins to bob, but still she refuses to come in.  Finally Noye and the kids have no choice but to drag her in, but all her husband gets for it is a slap [thank you percussion] round the face.

The storm is really taking hold by now. Kyrie, eleison sings the choir, Lord, have mercy, to an accompaniment of trumpets, cymbals and drums. I sit back, feeling a bit like one of those storm-chasers in the American mid-west, waiting for the main event to kick off.

And here it comes.  Here it is.  Rain on the screen - stair-rod rain, not polite English patter but rainforest stuff.  It’s on the columns of the Abbey too. It’s up amongst its arches and down amongst the audience, dancing on our heads. Everybody in the Abbey is caught up in it. Maybe the animals are safe in Noye’s Ark, but the rest of us are being rained upon. And it might be Andy McKeown’s light-show imitation rain, but I for one am feeling decidedly cold and wet.

Suddenly it’s the storm-dancers turn.  Here they come, followed hard on heels by the spirit of the storm kitted out in electric blue, presiding over waves billowing with rage.  All around the Abbey, lightening flashes and thunder does what thunder does best. The storm dancers rush about, surging like tides. Then out of the chaos, unbidden and unexpected, comes that old hymn about those in peril on the sea, and I find myself singing along with it, feeling as if I’ve never quite got it until now, because it’s not just someone else’s peril – this time it’s mine too.

The waters are high now.  Shoals of darting fish [I exaggerate here – it was three fish, actually] leave trails of air-bubbles behind. The sky’s still dark, but there’s a shift in the music, something that suggests a hint of blue. Something on the screen is hinting at it too – enough blue for Noye to send out a ballet-dancing raven to look for land.

One moment the raven is on stage, on tiptoes, beating black wings. Then it’s gone, and we catch a glimpse of a huge black bird on the screen. Then that, too, is gone - and there’s no land to be found.

Will this flood ever subside? ‘Forty days and nights,’ sings Noye. ‘Forty days and nights!’ You can imagine how long those days and nights must feel, cramped into that Ark with all those animals and a grumpy wife. Next time Noye sends out a dove, hoping for better luck. She heads off down the aisle; we see her on the screen, winging across the waters. Then suddenly she’s back – and the olive branch she’s carrying is big enough for even those at the back of the Abbey to be able to see.

Troubled waters, it seems, are troubling no more.  Regeneration is taking place. New life is to be found on earth. And new life in the Ark, too. Mrs Noye is at the helm, holding the Ark steady as the waters subside.  The face-slapping stroppy wife has gone, replaced by a smiling, serene-looking one.  They’re strong together, Noye and her, united by suffering and the trauma of the flood. Once you could have been forgiven for wondering what they saw in each other - but not any more.

Suddenly, up pops God.  Out of the ‘shippie’, he calls. The door is open. It’s time to leave.  Time, too, for the washed-clean brand new earth to start to grow, and for the animals to multiply and fill it. A joyful procession stumbles out of the Ark to an accompaniment of singers and orchestra, and heads down the aisle.  Twitchy little mice skip past my pew, prowling tigers and plodding elephants. ‘Alleluia’ they’re all singing, and the screen behind them is alive with swirling lights.  

Then God calls again ‘Noye! Noye!’ he calls, and before I can think oh no, here we go again, God’s promised that never again will a cataclysm of this nature destroy the earth. The screen fills with rainbow colours. Everybody start to sing - not just the animals and Noye and family, but us as well, the entire audience supported by the orchestra.  We’re singing rounds, and the Abbey is ringing, and I’m in a muddle because I know I’m meant to be following what Noye sings but in the roar of sound I can’t hear him. There’s a sun on the screen, and a funny wobbly shape that I’m guessing is a moon.  Stars like fireflies appear, and the screen has turned the deepest sky blue.

Finally, after all the animals and his family, with a fanfare of trumpets Noye and Mrs Noye leave the Ark. ‘The hand that made us is divine,’ sing cast and audience as one. The last ‘Amen’ rings out. Suddenly it’s like the Cinderella story when at the stroke of midnight the carriage becomes a pumpkin. Animals turn back into children. They surge up the aisles and attempt to pile onto the stage. Half of them can’t fit on, and they’re giggling and a few of them are shoving. You’d never believe they all fitted in, back when the stage was meant to be an Ark. 

Thunder breaks out. This time, though, it’s not the orchestra or special effects. It’s parents and grandparents, proud music lovers all, stamping on the floor. On and on it goes until God gets down from his pulpit, looking as if he’s having trouble with his robe. Then the lights come on. Clapping hands and feet fall silent. Coats come out.

It’s amazing how quickly normal life can be resumed. Everybody’s on their feet, making sure their mobiles are switched back on, and they’ve got their bags, children and whatever else they brought with them. ‘What did you think..?’ ‘I thought the musicians were excellent...’ ‘It’s great to see people getting together…’ ‘Great place to do it, in the Abbey...’

I’m in the aisle, along with everybody else. A moment ago it was our town’s young people leaving the Ark and heading out into the world to reclaim their lives. And now it’s me, blinking into the shiny darkness of a Shrewsbury night.  Did everything happen exactly as I described it? I can’t answer that, except to say that I know what I experienced – and it was Benjamin Britten’s Noye’s Fludde. 

The production team include Maggie Love, Maureen Powell-Davies, Andy McKeown, assisted by Bill McCabe and Dave Jones, Beverley Baker, Garry Jones, Charles & Heather Descombe, Stephen Edwards, Hamish McKeown, Mark Warner, Jeremy Lund, Claire Fitton and Nick Jones.

God was played by Gareth Jenkins, Noye by John Bowen and Mrs Noye by Posey Mehta. 

The orchestra was drawn from Shrewsbury High School, Shrewsbury Sixth Form College, the Priory School, Meole Brace Science College and Adams Grammar School, Newport.

Dancers, Noye’s family and animals came from Shrewsbury High School, St George’s Junior School, Coleham Primary School and Mereside Primary School.

Thanks in the programme were extended to Shrewsbury Handbells, Reverend Paul Firm and the staff of Shrewsbury Abbey, Grant Wilson, the officers of the Shropshire Archives, Violet Rose Vintage, Dogeared Vintage, Shropshire Trophy Shop, The Shropshire Lodge of Royal Ark Mariners, Shrewsbury High School Head, Mike Getty, and staff, and Head Teachers of all the schools involved. 

The photographs of the production are copyright Andy McKeown.

I hope I haven’t left anybody out!

No comments:

Post a Comment