The Little Match Girl Passion – review [4 STARS]
Published on 11 November 2011 // The Guardian // Kate Molleson
Like the Bach Passions on which it was modelled, David Lang’s Little Match Girl Passion wasn’t written to be staged. The 30-minute score won a Pulitzer prize in 2008 for the humanity of its storytelling: four voices weave faltering, closely overlapping fragments of text, leaving space for reflection while entrancing listeners with their chant-like delivery. Lang himself said he wasn’t sure if a staged version would crowd the effect; Josh Armstrong, director of this beautiful Theatre Cryptic production, said the work’s fragility “must be handled with kid gloves”.
That vague trepidation translates into a very careful setting, whose every detail looks mulled over and saturated with symbolism. Macabre interior decor and Victorian-era burlesque costumes pointedly avoid sentimentality, but Armstrong’s real skill is in ratcheting up tension between movement and extreme stillness – like Lang’s music. The vocalists (Nicola Corbishley, Clare Wilkinson, Jimmy Holliday and Christopher Watson) moved around sluggishly; they were the equivalent of Bach’s chorus, seeking absolution by telling the match girl’s tragedy from the lazy comfort of a lavish living room. The combined sound of their voices was mesmerising. On a starkly lit platform behind them was the match girl (dancer Emma Snellgrove), barefoot and voiceless, throwing desperate, anguished gestures until finally freezing still. Artful, sobering and somehow timely stuff.
The first half of this double bill was another Lang setting, also about death. World to Come focuses on a person’s last breath and his grasping for some kind of light beyond. Its music is less immediately captivating than the Passion, but cellist Oliver Coates‘s whispering delivery worked symbiotically with the delicate screen visuals – snowflakes on a foggy window, or maybe headlights through trees – by Irish video artist Jack Phelan.