Growing Up With Schubert

This article was originally published on A Younger Theatre.

As Up In Arms prepares to present Winterreise at the Tristan Bates Theatre next week, Co-Artistic Director Barney Norris looks back at the work’s long life and his association with it.

Six years ago, I was asked to help out on a show at the Edinburgh Fringe. It was to be a strange production – a handful of performances in a piano museum of a song cycle that used puppetry and animation to get its message across. The piece was Thomas Guthrie’s staging of Schubert’s song cycle, Winterreise.

It was a wonderful way to encounter a masterpiece. Classical music – until that time – had been a slightly alien world for me, but it was impossible to approach Winterreise purely as music. My job was to run the projections and lights, and these were things I associated much more with the theatre than the concert hall. And theatre was cool. Childhood visits to the Polka, years of youth theatre plays, and the visit of Out of Joint’s Talking to Terrorists to my sleepy town had convinced me of that. So I gave Schubert a chance.

What followed was an extraordinary emotional experience. Tom’s staging took the songs far away from the white ties and blue rinses I thought of as the colour palette of classical music, and made the story vital and human. Schubert wrote Winterreise with the last of his life – he composed the final songs on a guitar while lying in bed, too weak to sit at the piano. What he had put into this final music was brilliantly realised on stage, and I was captivated. We played in Edinburgh to delighted, moved audiences, then returned home, satisfied and sleep deprived. Then something unusual happened – the show went on. Bookings kept coming from festivals across Europe, and we continued presenting Winterreise all through my years at university.

It’s rare, of course, to work on a piece of theatre for more than a few months, let alone years, and the relationship I developed with the piece was fascinating to me. Re-visiting it could take me back to the places and ages I had been when we had last done it, and I was able to look at my own life through watching the production, asking myself how had I changed since I heard it last. What did it mean to me now? It’s true that the value of live performance lies, in part, in the fact that when the audience enters the auditorium they do so knowing anything could happen, but with the successive revivals of Winterreise the only constant for me, strangely, was the work itself – everything else was different every time. This taught me something about art, which can vanish for years between performances and is always different because of the eyes we see it with, but exists, as a glass which we can go back and see our lives through time and again.

The work did, of course, grow and change as we presented it over the years. Ideas were clarified and intensified through successive performances as we sought for the most effective way of expressing Schubert’s story. Tom is still working at what we present, honing and challenging it, keeping the work fresh. This week we have worked with the director John Adams, the founding Artistic Director of Paines Plough, who has leant his expertise to a production that, for me, justifies its long life and continual revivals by its company’s willingness to re-investigate what they are presenting, overturn previous findings, and see the work anew each time. Bringing new intelligences to bear on the performance, and allowing Tom’s constant invention when he revisits the show to generate new momentum, has meant the production hasn’t tired, instead becoming more expressive and relevant every time I see it.

But for me, it’s not just the work that has grown. I am able to recognise when I watch it that I have grown into Schubert over the years I have been an operator and, now, producer on the show. What was beautiful and strange when I first watched it has become intimate and personal, because I have learned over the years of listening that, like any great story, Winterreise is about my life as much as it is about the stranger in the poems. Growing up, I have found the work speaking more and more directly to me, reminding me more and more of my own experience. It’s strange, being able to document the development of some kind of emotional maturity against this arctic and beguiling point of comparison, and I have been fortunate to have it in my life.

Working on Winterreise has shown me the role theatre or music can play in our lives as a prompt for reflection: at the Tristan Bates next week, we hope to introduce this particular mirror to a new audience.

Up In Arms presents Winterreise at the Tristan Bates Theatre from 12 to 17 December.

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