Dir. Zinnie Harris, Citizen’s Theatre, 22nd Jan
The studio in the Citizen’s Theatre is tiny – no more than a box. The set of a run-down kitchen hugs one corner of the room, and it is in this very fitting space that the lives of an impoverished couple are played out in 45 minutes of riveting contemporary opera.
If you thought opera was elitist or inaccessible, think again. The Garden couldn’t be more relevant as a critique of modern urban life. A middle-aged couple living in a high rise flat find themselves caught up in an endless struggle against the systematic neglect and poor infrastructure that leaves them without electricity, water or prospects of improving their situation. Outside this box-world, the planet is dying, and in a way The Garden is a story of the apocalypse, but one that’s been transposed into the realm of the everyday.
This combined with the local accents and idioms gives the opera a Glaswegian feel that’s instantly recognisable and relatable. Even when the dialogue suddenly switches into song, the emotional rawness and believability of the performance is carried through seamlessly. When a plant begins to grow through the linoleum floor, it unleashes a barrage of tensions, fears and hopes that evidently lie just below the surface of these characters’ lives, and that emotional complexity is beautifully executed by the actors. The special effects are crude (i.e. there aren’t any), but it’s the idea that’s powerful – what happens when you believe you’ve discovered the last apple tree on earth? What if you’re just crazy? What if you’re not? The tension feels like a physical weight in the room, and John Harris’ score captivates the audience with its pulsating electronic urgency. Every breath in the room is baited.
It is thanks to the operatic medium that the story resonates so intensely. The Garden is a reminder that everyday tragedies of life such as mental illness, austerity and the unravelling of sick minds in a sick world deserve the drama and passion of opera just as much as any classical epic.