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Sunday, December 5, 2021

Bluebeard’s Castle, Stone’s Nest review: skilful reimagining turns gothic thriller into a tale of dementia

The 19th-century Welsh Presbyterian Chapel hidden in theatreland between the Charing Cross Road and Shaftesbury Avenue has seen incarnations as a pub, a squat, and most notoriously as the nightclub Limelight, until it was recently resurrected as an adventurous arts venue, Stone Nest. But I doubt it will have seen anything quite as touching as this reimagined version of Bartok’s chilling one-act opera Bluebeard’s Castle.

The opera’s original scenario specifies a vast, circular Gothic hall, lined with the heavy doors that will be opened to reveal Bluebeard’s kingdom and former wives, and which will engulf his new wife, Judith. The much smaller (though still Gothic) space here hosts a domestic version by the new company Theatre of Sound. Stephen Higgins conducts his own effective, pared-down version of the score, while Daisy Evans turns the scenario on its head in a most affecting way, inspired by recent work with dementia sufferers.

Bartok always claimed that his opera was a psychological drama, and here there are no doors, just an old trunk from which Bluebeard (the superbly clear and eloquent Gerald Finley) nostalgically and smilingly – you don’t usually see many smiles in Bluebeard – excavates moments of their past. Judith (the intense and moving Susan Bullock) struggles desperately to connect with these memories: it becomes clear that we are seeing her story, with which she has lost touch. The trinkets from the trunk reveal scenes from a marriage. A carefree courtship, a wedding drenched in golden light, a young baby, a family Christmas, and then the catastrophic death of a son: Judith haltingly recovers the memories revealed to her by Bluebeard.

In Bartok’s opera, the final door that Bluebeard is so reluctant to open reveals his three former wives, who take Judith away. Here, in the last scene, Judith is simply handed a mirror by Bluebeard, her former selves appear on stage with her, each with a mirror, and Judith finally confronts her mental state with puzzlement and resignation. Thanks to Evans’s skilful re-writing of the script, the narrative convinces: this is certainly not Bartok’s opera, but it is plausibly something that could be said to lurk beneath its surface.

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