Bonnie Greer was invited to appear on Question Time in 2009 amid controversy about BNP leader Nick Griffin being included on the show. She said ‘Yes’ which is where the title of the show comes from. The two weeks prior to the event is the time-period that Greer chose to set her new ‘opera’.
“Can a single decision be a work of Art?” This is Greer’s starting point, and a revealing one. To her mind her performance on Question Time was so momentous, so far-reaching that the whole country thinks of it as a defining moment in British political history. The original broadcast was tense and dramatic and Greer certainly dealt with Nick Griffin in expert fashion, exposing his supposed patriotism as mere jingoism. But to turn her decision into the basis of an opera is the most pretentious and blatantly self-aggrandising act imaginable.
It is hard to discuss something objectively if it has made you angry. Firstly Yes is not an opera- it is a collection of flimsy vignettes without narrative or drama set to embarrassing music. As lacking as the libretto was of any serious or challenging content, the music itself was the biggest downfall, being made up of grating musical-theatre clichés, and trapped in a very narrow sound-palate. Imagine someone playing ‘chopsticks’ on the piano with accompaniment from a drum kit. No wonder the man next to me asked where the nearest exit was as soon as it started.
The structure of the piece is made up of three interlocking elements - Greer sitting and writing the piece, scenes of ‘real life’ in London, and lessons on British History.
Greer herself read aloud about the (entirely normal) chain of events leading up to the show, such as receiving phone calls from the press and being driven to the BBC. Her acting was strained and she found it difficult not to smile to herself during the parts of the piece that she obviously enjoyed.
Among the ‘real life’ sequences were an upper-class English woman stroking a cat and repeating the mantra “It wouldn’t do if we were all alike” (profound) a young boy singing “I love you granddad” (moving) and an angry mob shouting “I hate Labour” (political).
For the ‘History Lessons’ we were subjected to lists of dates of significant invasions and battles that were designed to make the audience think twice about what it is to be British. An entirely patronising idea, particularly to any members of the audience who weren’t racist to begin with.
The opera ends just before the TV show is due to begin and Bonnie Greer steps on to a raining stage amid a handful of black umbrellas to open a rainbow umbrella. Get it?
The direction from John Lloyd Davies, as well as the musicianship in general, were successful, but it was impossible to appreciate any elements detached from this amateurish vanity project.
- Stephen Crowe
Until 26 November at ROH2. www.roh.org.uk/yes