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David Sawer, Rumpelstiltskin - A grotesque fable for our times: (World premiere) Birmingham Contemporary Music Group Players with Martyn Brabbins (Conductor) CBSO Centre Birmingham, 14.11. 2009 (GR)

All round teamwork was evident at the world premiere of David Sawer’s Rumpelstiltskin…..A grotesque fable of our times, performed at the CBSO Centre in Birmingham on Nov 14th. Under the bold leadership of Stephen Newbould, the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group is dedicated to the promotion of 20th century music and sounds. They gave a fully staged 65 min modern version of the Grimms’ fairy tale, featuring thirteen of the BCMG players and six dancers. If the music for such a billing didn’t threaten to be instantly appealing, the successful directorial partnership of Richard Jones and Stewart Laing certainly was. So it proved; the second of the two performances on the one evening filled the house. Sawer had reunited the team from his operetta Skin Deep and joining forces with Martyn Brabbins as conductor, delivered an absorbing and entertaining evening.

Although neither ballet nor opera, this was certainly an effective piece of musical theatre. Laing’s economical set design essentially comprised a standalone wooden room situated centre back stage, the sliding front wall permitting the interior furnishings and props to be efficiently changed as the familiar scenes unfolded. The open space in front allowed additional space for the dancers (or rather mime-artists) to express the grotesque nature of the narrative freely. Jones has said he is not interested in historicism as such; setting Rumpelstiltskin in our times was an ideal scenario for him.

How did Jones project his account? Essential elements remained. However the King was now some sort of unscrupulous moneylender. Complete with a couple of bailiffs to do his legwork, The Idle Boast opening saw a writ being served on the good-for-nothing Miller. Other familiar Grimm elements emerged visually: the imprisoned Daughter, the spinning of straw into gold and the devilish role of Rumpelstiltskin. The greed of the father, moneylender and bailiffs took over when they saw a fortune looming. Two large hay bails were ceremoniously dumped alongside the spinning treadle. As she worked on the raw material, Sarah Fahie as Rumpelstiltskin peered ghostlike through the window of the house. The marriage of the daughter was arranged and we saw the moneylender-groom nervously pacing up and down awaiting his bride. She appeared in wedding dress, coronet and finery – costumes by Helen Johnson. These, together with one gift to the bride of a Dansette style gramophone, placed the action firmly in the 1960s.

Moving on a year it is now the Miller who was concerned, rolling his own outside the delivery room anxiously awaiting the birth of his grandchild. His daughter duly emerged with baby (doll) in pram. Rumpelstiltskin demanded that the bargain he made must be honoured, agreeing only to forego the arrangement if his name can be guessed. This led to another effective piece of Jonesism. Reams of paper were deposited on the stage and the four men retired to desks, beginning to pen every name they could recall, but to no avail. Having followed Rumpelstiltskin to his abode, the moneylender spies on him from the roof and somehow discovers the name. When the partition opened for the Naming the Devil scene, a mountain of papers bore witness to the failed naming attempts – a coup de théâtre. Rumpelstiltskin became a figure of fun – performers and audience united in the merriment. During his Last Dance the dismembered limbs of Rumpelstiltskin were thrust in turn through the walls and roof of the house. It was still a fairy tale after all.

I thought the music fitted the action pretty well. There was a sinister chord when the two bailiffs arrived. Scraping violins and harp portrayed the fear and frustration of the daughter attempting to find the Midas touch. When the spinning began the pizzicato of the strings and harp whirred sympathetically. The wedding ceremony was conducted to some lovely tonal ensemble playing. The married couple and guests tapped their feet in approval during the tuneful celebrations.

The starting positions of the BCMG musicians had the three strings and harp on the right, while Brabbins, the brass and reeds were to the left. But there was much interchanging of seating arrangements during the performance. For instance as the wedding preparations were made, the three strings went walkabout and joined the main group. Later the three upper reeds moved across stage to join the harp stage right. This was somewhat distracting on continuity. Since Sawer’s score ensured a high level of dramatic impact and a broad variety of colours, this seemed unnecessary, particularly in such an intimate space as the CBSO centre.

I was disappointed there was no word from either composer or director in the programme regarding their input. Nor was there a pre-performance talk as is often case with BCMG promotions. Let’s hope this Rumpelstiltskin does not vanish into obscurity like so many modern music pieces.

Geoff Read

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