Jonathan Miller’s version of Bach’s St Matthew Passion is a very different production for the National Theatre to stage. In fact, it’s very different to most productions.
It should have a category all of its own. It’s not a concert, as it has more staging and movement. It’s not an opera, as it does not fully embrace sets and action. It sits somewhere in between.
Never before have I felt the National’s Olivier theatre an intimate venue. But with the Southbank Sinfonia – returning to the National after its appearance in Every Good Boy Deserves Favour – arranged in a rough circle completed by choirs on either side, the Olivier stage seems to shrink, sucking the auditorium towards the performers.
Andrew Staples takes the central role of the Evangelist, telling the story of Jesus’s betrayal and crucifixion, but somehow almost invoking the action. With a sometimes sinister air, he relishes re-telling the famous story, drawing characters in and out of the tale, admonishing them, pitying them and watching over them throughout the performance.
Though some of the choral parts had me reaching for my copy of conductor Paul Goodwin’s translation, Staples clarity of performance, coupled with the emotion in tone and face, drives the drama forward.
The character of Jesus is actually strangely quiet for much of the evening, though when Hadleigh Adams does sing, it is with a voice that would inspire people to follow him or quake in fear. As he stands or kneels alone on the stage his face is a picture of sorrow and anger.
Most effective in Miller’s staging, however, is the use of the choirs. Representing baying hordes and confused crowds, surging towards the central staging area or milling around at the edges, they bring another layer of drama to the piece that would be lost with a static choral group. Within Bach’s music too, the most moving moments come from the choir, which sounds beautifully serene when singing unaccompanied.
What may seem like a halfway house of staging works well for this composition. Some purists have argued that the movement and drama added by Miller detracts from the music. But this production is staged at a theatre, the home of stories and drama. There are no liberties with vast sets or outrageous costumes; the piece is performed in casual clothes. Instead Miller adds just enough drama to enhance the Bach composition for the stage, enough to evoke the physicality of this most famous of tales.
Bach’s music has survived any threat to it pretty well for the last 300 years, adding movement and flesh only makes it more accessible and engrossing.