Not such sweet soul music

Chris Monks’s Soul Man is a worthy effort to bring Verdi’s Rigoletto up to date – but branding the play as a soul extravaganza doesn’t do it justice.

Anyone who’s been following events at the Stephen Joseph Theatre will know that since Alan Ayckbourn stepped down as Artistic Director in 2009, his successor Chris Monks has been hard at work establishing himself. Amongst other thing, he’s been bringing his popular adaptations of operas. So far, Scarborough has seen the Mafia version of The Pirates of Penzance, the cricket version of The Mikado and a modern-day version of Carmen where the title character works in a shopping centre. However, the last three years have been re-runs of his greatest hits; this year, it’s back to the donkey work of trying something new and hoping it works.

Re-workings of opera such as Chris Monks’s might not be popular with purists but they are important to anyone who wants to make opera accessible. Many people complain that opera is priced out of reach of most people, and in response, places like the Covent Garden Opera House aim to keep a proportion of seats affordable, but that’s a distraction. The real issue is that traditionally-staged opera is near-impossible to follow if you’re not already familiar with what you’re seeing – and worse, I’m not sure many opera buffs consider this a problem. With diction – even in English-language operas – a very low priority, it’s quite possible to see the most amazing opera and not have a clue what’s going on.  Intentionally or not, there seems to be a “club” of people who “get” opera who are the intended market for opera (and it doesn’t help that many people apparently consider Gilbert and Sullivan to not be “proper” opera and therefore not part of the club). So when people such as Chris Monks adapt operas into setting people can identify with, this is important – it is a way of getting people to relate to a form of art they might otherwise be excluded from.

This year, it’s an adaptation of Verdi’s Rigoletto. So, if you don’t know the story, here’s a quick opera lesson: this work is based on Victor Hugo’s play Le Roi S’amuse (The King has Fun). In the opera The Duke of Mantua (altered from the King of France in Hugo’s play) is a philanderer who works his way through the wives and daughters of his nobles, who are then mocked by his jester Rigoletto. One count fails to see the funny side and curses both Duke and Jester. The tables are turned when the Duke and Rigoletto’s secret daughter Gilda fall for each other. Unable to accept this, Rigoletto hires an assassin to kill the duke, but it ends up with his beloved Gilda taking the knife instead. Then she dies. Curse fulfilled. The end. Have a pleasant evening. (Strangely enough, some consider Rigoletto to be a comic opera – possibly because it’s got a couple of jolly-sounding tunes in it. Either that or they find the finale death of a 16-year-old side-splitting.)

Chris Monks transplants the opera, now Soul Man, to a corrupt 1970s West Yorkshrie nightclub. The Duke is now Joe Green; a nightclub owner so powerful that he can seduce the wife of the Chief Inspector under his very nose. And the jester is now stand-up comedian Justin Jones, still poking fun at Green’s cuckolded underlings much to their annoyance. The assassin is now a hit-man who operates in a seedy pub. A good test of an adaptation such as this is whether it looks like this is how it was meant to be performed all along, and this adaptation, like Carmen, passes the test rather well. Half an hour into the performance, you forget that you are listening to 19th century music in a 1970s setting. Even where Chris Monks changes the original lyrics for contemporary ones, it all somehow looks like that’s the way it was meant to be.

The only bit which did seem a bit odd was the ending. It might be standard practice in opera to finish with a death aria of a leading character, but in this 1970s transplant it didn’t feel like the right place to finish. Would Justin Jones blame Joe Green for his daughter’s death? Would Joe blame Justin? Would this trigger the collapse of Joe’s seedy empire? We don’t know, because that’s where Hugo and Verdi ended the story. I don’t see what Chris Monks could have done about this – adding an extra chapter on to someone else’s story is a bit much – but this did mean the ending came across as abrupt.

Now the controversial bit: the addition of soul music. In previous adaptations, Chris Monks has tinkered with the setting, the characters, and the lyrics and still made it work. But this is the first one I’ve seen where he’s added in extra songs that weren’t part of the original work – and not everybody’s happy with this. It’s not fair to dismiss the achievement here: the cast, together with musical director Richard Atkinson, double up as the club’s soul band, and finding eight people who can both act and play to this standard is a difficult task. But the jump between piano accompanied nineteenth-century opera and classic soul hits from the 1970s is a bit disorientating. This could maybe have been lessened by re-scoring Rigoletto to be accompanied by a soul band throughout the play rather than just the 1970s hits, although whether that would be feasible with the band also being the cast is another question.

Poster for Soul Man, showing all ast members with their musical instruments.But that’s not the main issue. Jumping between the two styles is a matter of personal taste, and it might not be a big deal to other people. The problem, I think, is the way this was publicised. Here is the image which was used for all publicity of Soul Man. It features the cast of eight plus musical director posed with the soul band instruments. The publicity also made a big thing of all the hits included in the play, such as The JokerEverything I Own, and Lovin You. Well, we more than get the message that there’s going to be soul music in the play, but what has this got to do with the play? The band that plays in Joe Green’s club is, at the most, an incidental part of the play. Even more odd: why are the cast photographed in modern dress for a play set in 1974? SJT’s publicity is normally pretty good, so all I can think is that they thought they’d get more people through the door if they get the word out about all the songs we know and love. Maybe even a hope that some people who came from the soul music would discover the wonderful world of Italian opera. But judging from the turnout of the Saturday matinee I was at, if this was the plan, it didn’t work.

Marketing Soul Man this way does not do the play justice. There are endless plays out there that market themselves on other people’s songs rather than their own merits, such as Girls Night featuring Dancing Queen and It’s Raining Men, Desperately Seeking Susan featuring the songs of Blondie, and Schindler’s List the Musical featuring the tunes of 2 Unlimited. (I made one of those plays up, don’t bother searching for it on Google.) Soul Man has more to offer and does not deserve to be on this pile. This play doesn’t have the same impact as last year’s Carmen, which was outstanding, but Carmen itself (both the original opera and Chris Monk’s adaptation) was a risk that no-one could have predicted in advance if it worked. So I hope Chris Monks keeps at this, and we’ll see what we get next year.

Also showing at the SJT in August was Lost and Found. This is two connected one-act plays, with Found written by John Godber, and Lost written by his wife, Jane Thornton. Chris Monks directed Lost, and Godber himself directed FoundLost is about an elderly couple: Len, a control-freak who never got over being made redundant, and his long-suffering wife Betty, who finally re-connect to one and another at a weekend in Scarborough. This is done as a play within a play, with Len and Betty played impromtu by hotel staff Tom and Chelsea (and, as is normal for Godber/Thornton plays within plays, in spite of Tom and Chelsea cobbling this play together at the last moment, they miraculously act the parts to full professional standard, but that’s an artistic liberty we’ve come to accept). In Found, this time it’s the story of Tom and Chelsea themselves, on the last day of the summer season. Tom is a postgraduate student writing a thesis on the demonisation of the working class, Chelsea a middle-aged drunken chav who should know better, who somehow have a chemistry with each other. This play is very much one of modern class divide: Tom cannot understand why Chelsea gets drunk every night and had a baby at 15; Chelsea cannot understand why Tom is happy to go to Yo Shushi with his student mates but won’t play pool with the other hotel staff.

One interesting observation was that, in spite of the two plays having different authors and directors, they were both stylistically very similar. In fact, if I didn’t know otherwise, I’d have said both plays were Godber plays. One might argue that Jane Thornton is imitating her husband’s style, but I don’t think that’s the case. My theory is that this shows how deeply Godber and Thornton collaborate on other plays. They openly collaborated on Shakers many years ago, but even for plays with John Godber credited as the sole author, I suspect his wife had a lot of input into his creation, and now they are so used to working together it’s hard to separate one from the other.

The pair of plays has had strangely mixed fortunes. For many years, the Stephen Joseph Theatre has run two one-act plays each summer, mostly performing the acts individually but doing the occasional double bill (presumably for the benefit of people like me who travel a long way to see the plays and don’t have to make a second journey). So far, that model has worked fine. This year, for some reason, the double-bills have been selling out, whilst the individual performances of Lost and Found have sold poorly. Maybe it’s because the two plays in the double bill this year are more strongly connected that most double bills in previous years, but whatever the reason, we could be seeing more double-bill performances and less individual performances of their one-acts next year.

Lost and Found appears to have been the more popular of the two August plays in Scarborough, but it’s fair to say that this was also very much in Godber and Thornton’s comfort zones. The themes in the play are themes that have been covered in many previous Godber plays. And it doesn’t really matter, because it’s a nice pair of plays to watch, and although its Scarborough setting appeals to Scarborians, it’s by no means necessary to live in Scarborough to enjoy the play. As a finished product, Lost and Found is the better play. But for the risks you need to take to produce unexpected gems like Chris Monks’s version of Carmen, we need more works like Soul Man.