Saturday, May 26, 2012

Currently running at the Linbury Studio Theatre at the Royal Opera House, David Eagleman’s book (Sum: Tales from the Afterlives. London: Canongate, 2009) has been transformed into a chamber opera by the contemporary composer Max Richter and The Royal Ballet Resident Choreographer Wayne McGregor.

I saw it last night (it runs until June 2). And loved it.

But first, the book.

I have read it a number of times, sometimes in snatches as it is one of those texts that benefits from a dipping in and out. The chapters are short, and complete in themselves, as each depicts a different scenario, alternative conceptualisations of an afterlife.

In the last entry of his memoir, Philip Gould movingly states that he is approaching ‘the door marked Death’ (When I Die: Lessons from the Death Zone. Philip Gould, edited by Keith Blackmore. London: Little, Brown, 2012.). He believed that what lay beyond would be ‘the best of things’.

The notion of an afterlife has been an inextricable part of our history, evolution and culture, and of course religion, with it’s various doctrines on Heaven and Hell and reincarnations. Yet the literary world has rarely ventured there, which seems odd. Perhaps this is related to the absoluteness of the afterlife as an imaginative, speculative, never-can-be-proven concept. The stuff of science fiction, but the difference being that most people believe in an afterlife, yet rarely consider what it may actually be.

Eagleman has, and offers us 40 possibilities. For example, you may relive all your experiences, but the order is shuffled so that all moments sharing the same quality are grouped together. Thus, you spend six days clipping your nails, seven months having sex, have twenty-seven hours of intense pain, thirty years of continuous sleep… Or, the afterlife may look pretty similar to the life you had, apart from one thing: it only contains people you already knew. No strangers, no unknown crowds, a loss that eventually makes you feel lonely and forlorn.

Or, in the afterlife you may be able to live multiple lives at the same time, like eating and not eating simultaneously…

There are many God possibilities, He is a medical doctor, a female She, a married couple, or many people. Or we are God’s organs, part of His biology…He lives through us, and without us He dies. Or your Creator may be a species of ‘dim-witted creatures’ who pester you with ‘Do you have answer?’ as they search for the meaning of it all.

Of course there is no answer. Eagleman’s book’s is a delightful and richly imaginative speculation that can never be proven right or wrong. The point is not to answer questions but to consider what it is about the afterlife (a concept that I do not personally subscribe to) that man throughout history has assumed to exist, and has needed to hang on desperately to that assumption. Sum is in many ways a tragic book, as it alludes to the basic human failing, that of dissatisfaction, of constant wanting and searching for something better. Sum is thus a parable of sorts, and it leaves the reader thinking of Life, not afterlife: what we have now may not be so bad after all. Make the most of it.

So, to the opera. I was curious to see how this could be staged. Firstly, the setting of the Linbury Studio and how it was arranged was conducive to the atmospheric and intimate performance. The three opera singers sat within the audience, intermittently wandering around, and this interactive format worked, as the relevance of the spoken and sung words ultimately resonated and belonged to us. Not all 40 vignettes were included, but I liked the selection. Interestingly, although the last chapter was included in the performance, it was not the ultimate vignette. Perhaps this was a wise choice, as Eagleman’s final chapter ‘Reversal’ concludes the book on a tragic note. In it, we do not die, but our lives rewind. As they  rewind, they also unravel as we discover that our memories have colluded, and misremembered, so that the myth of who we thought we were could be perpetuated. As we face the journey back towards the womb, we realise that we have never known who we actually were…

The singers, the score and the orchestra were sublime. The music evoked an eeriness, a haunting, and a beauty, that simultaneously uplifted and saddened. The choreography and visual affects complemented the chosen text, a backdrop that did not distract but added meaning to a text that can be both subtle and overwhelming.

The transformation of Eagleman’s text into a chamber opera worked.

Totally loved it, and was transformed.