Michael Coveney: Elegy for a massacre in Southwark, sweet sorrow at ENO, faint hearts at the Globe

”Sweeney Todd” was announced for the English National Opera and ”Doctor Scroggy’s War” opened at the Globe

I’ve been haunted all week by an elegy for two sopranos and small consort I heard in the beautiful, austere Georgian church of St George the Martyr in Southwark last weekend. Written by the Bicât brothers – Tony does the words, Nick the music – this was a moving memorial, ten years on, for the massacre at Beslan in the republic of north Ossetia. The siege lasted three days, 344 people died, 186 of them children. Two of the attackers were women, wearing explosive belts.

Some of these facts were baldly recited by Tony and the actor/writer Mick Ford in between the two arioso-style laments: the first, sung by Emily Van Era, was a too-late letter to her son on the first day of school; the second, sung by Frances M Lynch, a grave post-mortem of enquiry, with no body to mourn.

The Bicâts are of French and Russian antecedence, their grandfather a Chechen and president of the short-lived national assembly of the North Caucasian Republic. So the feeling of the piece – which was considerable, both intensely lyrical and mordantly "Russian" – derived from personal attachment and sorrow. Nick has written many theatre scores – for the RSC and the National, for Philip Ridley – as well as songs for Emma Kirkby and P J Harvey. But this was something both stranger and more disarming.

Tony Bicât, who’s worked as a writer, poet and teacher, founded Portable Theatre with David Hare, Snoo Wilson and Howard Brenton, and one of his and Nick’s first "main stage" scores was for Hare’s Cambridge rock’n roll play Teeth ‘N Smiles starring Helen Mirren and Jack Shepherd at the Royal Court. Before Beslan, in a forty-minute selection from the Bicât portfolio, Mick Ford sang one of the songs, "Last orders on the Titanic." Instant nostalgia: "The tide is rising, it’s covering her name; the ship is sinking but the music remains the same."

Nick Bicât’s one full-scale musical with Hare, The Knife, was a disaster in New York in 1987, starring Mandy Patinkin as a transsexual, but I’m sorry we didn’t hear any of the songs in St George’s; another time, another place, perhaps. Meanwhile, we had some other lovely folk songs, and one written for a Channel 4 film with the Romanian actor Ion Caramitru which powerfully evoked the whispering, dark days of a curfew in times of tyranny.

Anyone, including novelist Howard Jacobson, who "loathes" musical theatre, should have been there to be converted. In the new issue of Prospect magazine, Jacobson occupies the "If I ruled the world" column and bans all musicals written after 1950 (hard luck, West Side Story) and all T-shirts with logos on them. So he’s not an ideal Wicked audience, then.

Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel in Sweeney Todd in New York earlier this year
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel in Sweeney Todd in New York earlier this year

And I don’t think we’ll be banding together to buy him an ENO season ticket at the Coliseum, where Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel waxed lyrical about Sweeney Todd on Tuesday morning. They will head up thirteen semi-staged performances next March and April, reprising their concert version with the New York Philharmonic earlier this year.

The brisk press conference pre-empted any long term statement of intent by the new partnership ENO have formed with TV mogul Michael Grade and agent and producer Michael Linnit. Grade and Linnit are self-confessedly (and palpably) white-haired and conservative when it comes to the musical repertory. They’re in this to make money primarily for ENO and then, presumably, for themselves. It’s hard to see how they will do this with such an abbreviated presentation of the Sondheim, but the future plans won’t be announced till later this year, although there have been mutterings of Carousel. What about Ivor Novello?

What you really want to see is the ENO going on with, say, the work of the Bicât brothers, or Alecky Blythe and Adam Cork on London Road, or forgotten areas of the British musical theatre repertoire – Sandy Wilson’s Valmouth, David Heneker’s Irma La Douce or Make Me An Offer, Lionel Bart’s Maggie May, Novello’s King’s Rhapsody (with a new libretto by Simon Callow, perhaps, he needs the work) – not re-treads of Broadway and familiar West End musicals that are the province these days of Cameron Mackintosh, the subsidised sector or Jonathan Church down at Chichester.

Departing ENO music director Edward Gardner told Richard Morrison in The Times last week that for all ENO’s success, there’s a feeling that our politicians still don’t "get" the arts. He’s going to Bergen, where the Norwegian arts minister has pledged support for his plans and as much money as they can possibly spare: "Well, for anyone coming from Britain it’s such a surprise to hear that from a politician. I mean, do the British government even watch what we do at the Coliseum?"

I love going to Shakespeare’s Globe nearly as much as I do the Coliseum, but I’m worried about Health and Safety. The hoo-ha over fainting customers at Lucy Bailey‘s glorious gore-fest of a Titus Andronicus is a (blood) red herring: people faint all the time in the pressurized, airless cockpit, especially when the sun’s out, as it was at Tuesday’s matinee of Howard Brenton‘s terrific new Great War play, Doctor Scroggy’s War. They were dropping like flies, and not because of all the bandages and disfigurement on view.

I don’t think the volunteer ushers are equipped to deal with these situations. They faff around and really don’t know how to treat, let alone handle, people who’ve passed out. Too many of them were just telling half-dead patrons to stay on their feet and not sit on their haunches. One girl’s head hit the concrete floor of the pit with a resounding thump as she went (she was okay, as it happens). The pit was half-empty anyway and, in these circumstances, customers should be allowed to sit, lie down, do what the hell they like. Some serious attention needs to be paid to this Globe issue.