Thursday, 18 October 2012

The Lighthouse Keepers

I used to date a guy who had the most ridiculously esoteric interests. And I mean genuinely out there, not just crackers as a matter of impressing unimpressible London-types. It wasn't the best of relationships, but I have to give him some credit as he introduced me to a few truly awesome places in northern Wales and, as per the terms and conditions of our split, left me with Emma, a dear and delightful friend. He was into comedy, which was how we met - I previously dated another member of his Cantabrigian improv comedy troupe who I met one year during the Edinburgh Fringe (a long story. who cares!). Anyway, just before we started going out he'd formed a new sketch comedy group - The Three Englishmen - and perhaps during one barn-storming brainstorming session, or so I imagine, the ex whipped out a juicy little story he'd been saving about three lighthouse keepers who went missing from their lighthouse in the Outer Hebrides in 1900. Like sherry from my refrigerator, the three vanished without so much as a by-your-leave, never to be seen or heard from again. The Englishmen couldn't quite work the lighthouse keepers into a sketch of comedic genius and so instead hit upon the rather wonderful idea of turning the story into a torchlit play.

I remember the first time I went to see this little cracker way back in 2008. In fact, my memory of that first outing is so strong that, when I went to look back over old blog entries to find out the exact date, I realised that I'd forgotten that they'd performed the play again in a completely different venue a year later. Clearly a case of selective memory, as the second venue was far too small for the play's silly physicality and the whole thing just didn't quite work as well as it did the first time.

If you've ever been in a relationship with a "creative", you'll be well aware of that sinking feeling that comes from having to attend their opening or listen to their poems or their songs or whatever, and, on the frequent occasions when the work is terrible, feign enthusiasm if you still want to keep having sex with said person. I remember walking into the Cockpit Theatre for the first outing of The Lighthouse Keepers worrying about exactly this thing and, at the play's end, feeling not only relief but genuine respect and admiration for this utterly bonkers little work of theatre that they'd created. It still stands out in my mind, not exactly as a work of genius, but as a refreshingly unique and entertaining approach to making theatre.

Because of this back story, it came as something of a surprise when I found out that the ROH was putting on a chamber opera about the very same lighthouse keepers! As I learned from the catalogue last weekend when I went to see The Lighthouse in the ROH's petite Linbury Studio, it's not a new work, but a piece written by Peter Maxwell Davies in 1979. It's a fine little opera and though, despite the fine singing and excellent playing by the small orchestra, it's modern music that somehow isn't quite modern enough and not really the sort of operatic music I prefer.

As for the plot, as Delacroix says of architecture, so can be said of theatrical plots: "A finished building encloses the imagination within a circle and prevents it from straying beyond its limits.  Perhaps the only reason why the sketch for a work gives so much pleasure is that each beholder can finish it as he chooses..."

Though I can't quite remember the details of the plot of The Three Englishmen's version, it felt more meaningful because - unlike Davies' version - it never tried to answer the question of the mystery of what actually happened to the lighthouse keepers. As Delacroix figured out, the magic of these kinds of stories is that there are no true answers and so it's left to our imaginations to fill in the blanks. 

Even more mysteriously, just after I bought my ticket to the ROH's The Lighthouse, I found out that The Three Englishmen are reviving their torch-lit production of The Lighthouse Keepers on 29 October as part of the Leicester Square 13th Hour Horror Festival at the Leicester Square Theatre. Spooky!

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