Aberystwyth Arts Centre, 23 February 2016
Music – Stuart MacRae
Libretto – Louise Welsh, after ‘The Bottle Imp’ by Robert Louis Stevenson
Director – Matthew Richardson
Conductor – Michael Rafferty
Designer – Samal Blak
Lighting – Ace McCarron
Cast – Nicholas Sharratt / Ben McAteer / Steven Page / Rachel Kelly
At the heart of Robert Louis Stevenson’s gothic tale, ‘The Bottle Imp’, lies a logical paradox with a chilling, Faustian twist: a magic bottle will grant its buyer’s every desire, but, if they should die without having sold it for less than they paid for it, they will go to hell. Of course no rational person would buy the bottle for one cent since they would be unable to sell it for a loss, thereby condemning themselves to eternal, fiery torment. Hence it follows that no-one would buy the bottle for two cents either – for how could they possibly sell it to another on those stark terms?
The inference is that the bottle cannot be sold at any price in a sane world – unless, perhaps, you choose to regard a world based on ultra-high-stakes gambling as having any kind of rational foundation. Where Stuart MacRae and Louise Welsh hit the jackpot in their disturbing opera adaptation, The Devil Inside, is that they up-date the story to explore just that question within a setting of modern-day capitalist greed. Their timing is spot on; not just on the stage, but in wider economic terms. For the ironies at work in their tale are currently being played out in global financial markets struggling to stave off deflationary forces. Savers and investors are ‘earning’ negative interest rates, stock values are plummeting in a game of unpredictable ping-pong, and jobs are being swept away in a flood of cheapening goods. Not so far from the opera as we may like, in the ‘real’ world of grasping materialism, falling prices are bringing short-term bonanzas for some, but they just might send us all to hell.
As backpackers Richard and James discover, it doesn’t take much loss of moral compass to let the devil in. The story hinges upon how far they and each of the characters – and we in the audience – are willing to go to achieve success; what lines may or may not be safely crossed and why. And we all know the risks, since the seller is compelled to make those clear to potential buyers before they part with their cash. Arrogance, stupidity, denial, avarice, obsession: all these are exploited and become magnified in anyone who proves foolish enough to try outsmarting the evil goblin who – as any lover of folklore and faerie will know – demands to be fed even as it feeds the soul it entraps.
Nicholas Sharratt (Richard) and Ben McAteer (James) exude entirely plausible, growing desperation as the friends who, seduced by a sinister old man into buying the bottle (Steven Page, convincing here and as a vagrant), bite off more than they can chew. Together they set in train a sequence of events which lead to a conclusion far more shocking and ambivalent than Stevenson’s original, unsatisfying happy ending thanks to Welsh’s clever sleight of hand. Greed is one thing, but it is love and the attendant self-sacrifice which give the devil his last, dreadful laugh, as James seeks ways to eradicate his wife Catherine’s terminal cancer (the palpably terrified yet courageous Rachel Kelly). Ultimately, the couple themselves might elude hell, but we are left with the suggestion that something altogether more malign than a tumour is growing inside her as the tale slips from grotesque psycho-thriller with Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde allusions into the full-on, supernatural horror of Rosemary’s Baby.
The opera is a big step forward for MacRae and Welsh, whose recent collaboration for Music Theatre Wales, Ghost Patrol (2012), nonetheless won a South Bank Sky Arts Award and was shortlisted for an Olivier. The minimal staging and the superb acting of the cast, directed by Matthew Richardson, allow MacRae’s evocative score to carry the tale, in line with a gothic literary tradition which is as much about atmosphere as it is about narrative or action. Designer, Samal Blak, and lighting wizard, Ace McCarron, both deserve plaudits for demonstrating what can be achieved through the simplest of means.
Under conductor, Michael Rafferty’s assured direction, skittering, dissonant textures place low woodwind and delicately rasping brass at strange angles to subtly microtonal, downward sighs. Flute and oboe are given a spectral pairing while the harp sounds as if from some malevolent, bardic otherworld. High, eerily staccato lines and percussive plocks and scrapes unnerve as they pick out the impish presence at the centre of the story. This eponymous devil is manifested on stage as a small bottle which looks innocuous enough, only to erupt at key dramatic moments with a throbbing, noxious green light. The closer the fiery heat of hell draws near, the colder the scoring seems to become. Silhouettes and the swish of (magic) curtains become increasingly threatening as aeroplanes fly and a Nosferatu-type bent figure scuttles back and forth behind the backdrop. As James and Catharine struggle to hold onto the joy and hope of their union, their marital bed is stained with a blob-like perversion of a child’s mirror painting, folded in half to create a gruesome, black butterfly.
Vocally, the cast are extremely well matched and were well-supported by the fourteen superb soloists of the Music Theatre Wales Ensemble – although it’s in the singers’ parts that MacRae feels least at home. While he excels at characterful instrumental timbres, his song relies a little too heavily on lengthy, arching phrases which give passion and dread too similar a shape. Perhaps it’s the case that, in trying to eschew difficult leaps and extreme tessitura for his already strenuously tested cast, some necessary feeling or abandon has been sacrificed. At any rate, the vocal highlights occurred at moments of deepest anguish and recoil: Richard’s breakdown, curled up and yearning for the bottle in a leather recliner, carried real power whilst the final scene was a bitter and very twisted ensemble coup.
Crucially, however, MacRae manages to avoid the kind of film-inspired gestures that would be all-too easy to fall into in a score with such bracing modernist credentials. The balance between innocence/corruption and pleasure/terror is all there in the instrumental writing, which, along with Welsh’s excellent libretto, carries the audience inexorably through seven, tautly-paced scenes to the hideous thunderbolt of the finale. Like all good gothic tales, nothing is made too obvious; in the end, it’s not what you see, nor even what you hear, that chills you to the bone, but what you dare to imagine.
A co-production with Scottish Opera. For touring information go to http://thedevilinside.musictheatrewales.org.uk/
All photos, credit Bill Cooper. Header photo, Old Man (Steven Page)