“Pornography is one of the branches of literature aiming at disorientation,” wrote Susan Sontag. Buried within explicit displays of sex, there may be the capability to manipulate a viewer’s thoughts and enrich their experience of the world. In order words: to find art.
In the Lyric Theatre and Belfast Ensemble’s intelligent new opera, composer-director Conor Mitchell seems to follow Sontag’s thinking. We open in a crumbling apartment in cold war–era Berlin, where a red-haired seductress tries to capture our imagination in a jazzy song titled Like What You See, Boys? There is a sudden flick of lights, and we realise that a pornographic photo shoot is taking place, with the model Hanna clumsily hobbling between poses (a Joanna O’Hare so wholesome she practically twinkles). Like pornography, or art, we realise someone was playing with our minds.
The story initially seems old-school, like something out of Molière. Hanna, trying to raise the spirits of her depressed photographer boyfriend, Slavi (Darren Franklin, in an electrifying performance), concocts a ruse to elevate his artistic career by tricking a famous theatre actor, Margot (a sad diva, played by Celia Graham), to model for him. Before long, there are signs that the plot isn’t so sanitised; the building’s landlord, Magdalene (Rebecca Caine, stranded in past memories, and sounding astral in soprano), arrives with observations of an abusive and drunk boyfriend, but Hanna can see no wrong. “If Slavi says/It must be true,” they sing in unison, one’s voice ending on a note of promise, the other on cynicism.
There are intriguing parallels made here between an emotionally manipulative relationship and a zone of Berlin gradually coming down in Stalin posters. “Art subordinates them. Art that has no truth,” says the Soviet art critic Poliakov (Sean Kearns), making a manifesto for propaganda. Everywhere, fact seems to be obscured.
The only thing that can be said against the musical is that its sources of frisson tend to be slippery. After the realisation that the classic farce is actually a stark portrayal of an abusive relationship, we’re asked to consider the possibility of a love triangle (the arrival of Graham’s Margot), or even a quadrangle (a sudden expression of love from a Red Cross officer, charmingly played by Oliver Lidert), and the possibility of a genuine reconciliation between lovers in act one’s closer, The Anthem (decidedly retro symphonic compositions, pacy with Richard Rodgers waltz times, reaches their apotheosis here, packing in breathless syllables that feel like a nod to Sondheim).
There is a more satisfying follow-through in the musical’s ideas of art’s illusions (the funnily vapid art criticism in a song titled The Critique) and their unsettling endgame (the Soviet seizure of power, during a showstopping number sung by Matthew Cavan, as a distraught German culture officer).
Yet, illusions can be useful. With the Red Army closing in, Hanna tries to placate with a reprise of Like What You See, Boys? Maybe pornography is art. Maybe it will save her life.
Runs at the Lyric Theatre until Saturday, November 5th, as part of Belfast International Arts Festival