Bonesong/Unknown Position

Wed 3rd – Sat 13th August 2011


Fen Greatley

at 09:04 on 8th Aug 2011



Cambridge University Opera Society, replete with Royal Academy of Music instrumentalists, trickled meekly on stage, looking nervous and unsure. Perhaps they sensed my relative operatic ignorance.

Then the lights dimmed and rose. An explosive opening of Bonesong saw Louise Kemeny's crisp, penetrating soprano voice set the gold standard of the performance as she begged 'it' to stop, doughty deeds done with sausage meat the visually distressing cause. The action of palming and passing the offensive foodstuff proceeds in eery methodical synchrony, while the orchestrations, under Whitley's expert instruction and Stark's conducting, create a suitably tense and protracted atmosphere for this horror opera.

The resultant scenes partially depict the brutal acts of carnage by one individual (Gwilym Bowen) on the sister of Kemeny's female protagonist, which lead to her (Josephine Stephenson's) dismemberment and consumption by cannibalism, in which Kemeny partakes.

Bowen emerges monstrously, looming and imposingly postured. His tone is rich and pleasing, his tenor is powerful and controlled: though strong, I wondered if he might have given a little more. My main criticism would be his diction, since many of his lines were unclear and I heard whispers in the audience asking what was going on.

Maybe their questions were more directed towards the plot, since it is largely undeveloped – whether or not this is deliberate cannot be recognised. We are unsure as to what Bowen represents: is he some sort of monster, a figure ostracised from society? An animal? Or music itself? The statement made may be left to us to decide.

Unknown Position begins with a touch of Turnage's “Greek” about it, a domestic scene of seeming banality that is marred by the persistently jarring “I thought I was asexual” line (reminiscent of Greek's “Bung us the toast”, “Where's the jam?”, “Pig!”) that relocates us to the unknown position in the title, contrasting wonderfully with the altogether unreal scenes that preceeded in Bonesong, and those to follow.

Kemeny's torture, confusion and anguish is impeccably portrayed through everything about her: tone, expression and physicality. She acts as well as she sings, and just as I felt that I'd been waiting a while for a chillingly sustained top note, I was rewarded with multiple ones as the soprano realises her condition of 'object sexuality'.

This production is innovative in its use of a myriad of unsettling and inventive noises, such as the cracking of bones, to enhance an already refreshingly unconventional score, a winning fusion.

Snape and Whitley's scores are mesmerising, excitingly cutting edge and show great promise. These operas are begging to be seen, the reason why we come to the Fringe. Go and support this flourishing talent.


Olivia Edwards

at 11:26 on 8th Aug 2011



I should confess I represent the sector of Fringe attendees whose knowledge of opera would not fill a post-it note. However, fortunately for me, Cambridge University Opera Society have produced two brilliantly strange pieces that have the potential to be appreciated by whole auditoriums full of audience members as uninformed as myself. The two very distinct chamber operas – Bonesong and Unknown Position – have much in common, both exploring experiences of loss, love and perverted sensuality. I wish I had the expertise to articulate why Kate Whitley and Joe Snape’s musical compositions were so hauntingly beautiful and how the voices of tenor Gwilym Bowen and soprano Louise Kemeny were so powerfully moving in both pieces, however, I have instead turned my attention to considering how well each piece told its unusual story and how accessible Bonesong / Unknown Position is to those lacking musical understanding. Unfortunately, while I found Unknown Position compelling, I found Bonesong slightly harder to engage with.

One of the most striking features of the show is the presence of the orchestra shrouded in half darkness at the back of the stage, rendering it a part of the drama of the two operas. For the duration of Bonesong, the orchestra is separated from the audience and the performance space downstage by a floor-to-ceiling wall of clear rubber panels like those found in a butcher’s shop. It transpires that butchery is a fundamental element of the dark tale Bonesong tells, in which a young girl is stolen away from her sister and brutally murdered. Three parcels of raw meat adorn three wooden plinths at the start of the piece. The raw meat is fondled, ripped and squashed into a ball by soprano Josephine Stevenson, playing the young girl who will soon be murdered. Although this is an arresting opening, I struggled to understand why all three characters were on stage kneeling behind plinths displaying parcels of meat; I found the dialogue hard to follow above the agonizing sounds of plucked strings and screeching instruments. Just over my shoulder I heard one exasperated audience member declare ‘I can’t understand it’, and I was secretly relieved that it was not just me who was struggling to grasp the significance of the ball of sausage meat being passed between the three characters. Moreover, it was unclear precisely who or what Gwilym Bowen was supposed to represent, he was simply an obscure, demonic, bloodthirsty figure, perversely obsessed with the idea of Stevenson’s character as a lifeless corpse. However, as Bonesong continued, I did become immersed in its nightmare world, I began to make out the dialogue above the unnerving sounds of bones crunching and was on the edge of my seat by the time Stevenson’s character is murdered in a sequence of movements that have been choreographed to perfection and are utterly harrowing. Had I understood the opening sequence of the piece, I would have enjoyed Bonesong much more. Josephine Stevenson was well cast as the young victim, capturing her character’s vulnerability in both her physical movement and in her tone of voice. Bowen was fantastically terrifying as the hunched, shuffling, murderous persona and Louise Kemeny played the bereaved and manipulated older sister with elegance.

The opening of Unknown Position after a short interval thrusts the audience into a world resembling domestic reality: the orchestra are divided from the action downstage by simple Perspex panels and Louise Kemeny and Gwilym Bowen play a rowing couple after an irritable Kemeny returns home from the supermarket. The wonderful juxtaposition between Tesco’s Bran Flake packets and operatic singing is particularly refreshing after the dark and disorientating world of Bonesong. This is a piece that revels in placing familiarity and strangeness, normality and abnormality side by side. The domestic row between Kemeny and Bowen’s characters quickly descends into strangeness with Kemeny’s character admitting, ‘For years I wondered if I was asexual’. Kemeny’s performance as the cold, preoccupied girlfriend who realises that she is in love with a chair is outstanding. I was entranced by the tone and clarity of her voice and was utterly convinced by her portrayal of a woman with ‘object sexuality’. Through her poised, graceful movement, Kemeny transforms the wooden chair into a sensual object. Gwilym Bowen, though perhaps stronger as the perverse, bloodthirsty, seducer in Bonesong, movingly portrays the figure of the shunned boyfriend, hugging the Bran Flake box for comfort at one point as he recalls how he first met Kemeny’s character.

As Bonesong / Unknown Position was awarded three five star ratings during it’s run in Cambridge, I was surprised and disappointed to discover that there were so few audience members scattered across the show’s basement performance space at C Venues; I hope this changes. Bonesong / Unknown Position is fantastically unconventional and showcases outstanding musical talent and it deserves an auditorium full of open-minded people. My rating reflects the fact that I found some elements of Bonesong difficult to comprehend and I think accessibility is fundamental to the success of a show such as this but I hope that this production goes from strength to strength at the Fringe.


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