Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh – until 11 November 2017
Guest reviewer: Hugh Simpson
Tabula Rasa at the Traverse is a collaboration between Scottish Ensemble and Vanishing Point that contains moments of heartfelt beauty but never coheres. The title comes from Estonian classical composer Arvo Pärt’s piece of holy minimalism, performed here by the Scottish Ensemble along with three other pieces by Pärt. Tabula Rasa itself is apparently a very popular choice for dying people to listen to.
This informs the rest of the production. In between the music, co-writer Pauline Goldsmith performs a series of emotional monologues touching on the modern processes of death and dying, on how we deal with those we care about slipping away and how we remember them.
However involving and beautifully performed these are, however, they are strangely lacking in drama. Even more oddly, there is no real connection between them and the music either in terms of staging or emotionally.
When playing Fratres, violinist Daniel Pioro walks somewhat awkwardly around Goldsmith; the Ensemble’s artistic director Jonathan Morton performs Spiegel Im Spiegel more conventionally, but there is no more sense of a connection with the spoken elements.
During the closing performance of Tabula Rasa, Goldsmith stands among the musicians, but this is no more convincing than the earlier use of the musicians as silent actors.
A third element of the performance features Sarah Short reading excerpts from Marcus Sedgwick’s Snow. Like the rest of what is presented, this is of value in itself, being a quietly devastating meditation on our relationship with the natural world from a genuinely interesting writer who has in particular written some very good books for young people.
However, in this context it just provides another strand that fails to knit together, giving the production the feeling of a variety show rather than a coherent whole. Much of Matthew Lenton’s design is extremely striking, helped greatly by Kai Fischer’s lighting, but as conceiver, co-writer and director, Lenton’s overall control of events is less sure-footed.
The culmination of the piece is the performance of the work that provides the title. Depending on your point of view, it is either a wonderfully emotional, spiritually informed and straightforward corrective to much of modern music, or a piece of bland, sentimental archaism.
At any rate, it is performed here with genuine skill and no little emotion, despite the unforgiving acoustic of a theatre space not ideally suited to classical music. Morton and Clio Gould’s violin duet is ably backed up by the ensemble – not least by Sophia Rahman’s prepared piano, strangely gamelan-like at times. Rahman plays beautifully throughout, especially considering the other piano is an upright that looks (and sometimes sounds) as if it would be more at home in a Western saloon scene than a classical recital.
I cannot be the only person who, on hearing of Tabula Rasa in a musical context, thought of Einstürzende Neubauten before Pärt. Some of Neubauten’s noise and grit would have been welcome in this thoroughly accomplished, overly reverential, oddly assorted and strangely flat affair.