Artistic Director and Composer: Charlie Barber
Choreography: Andy Howitt
Filmmaker: Barnaby Dicker
Reviewer: Peter Jacobs
Michelangelo Drawing Blood is the new work by Charlie Barber for his company Sound Affairs, the latest in a series of distinct works that draw on different sources and combine original music by Barber with different theatrical forms and film to create innovative, imaginative experiences. Michelangelo Drawing Blood draws inspiration from the artist’s sketches for the never-completed fresco The Battle of Cascina and explores his life and practice through music and movement.
Michelangelo Drawing Blood is a hugely ambitious piece of work done on a relatively modest scale, combining Renaissance-inspired original music performed on period instruments played in tandem with pre-recorded music, with the addition of physical performance and evocative set and lighting design (by Alex Robertson and Andy Hamer). The music itself is exquisite and would work alone as a concert piece but the physical performance adds new dimensions and meaning to the composition and the layers of ideas that are embedded within its complex architecture.
Comprising seventeen sections, Barber draws together renaissance instruments with percussion, countertenor and choral vocals and weaves a rich tapestry of source and original melodies using Renaissance and early Baroque styles and modern composition, with a libretto that draws from Latin hymns, catholic texts and offices and extracts from Michelangelo’s sonnets and sketches to great effect, creating music that is complex, soothing, inspirational, familiar and hauntingly strange.
All woven to create a narrative structure about the artist’s work, life, obsessions and religious convictions. Luminous pre-recorded choral work by Opera’r Ddraig and a trombone ensemble performed by Gwyn Daniels are seamlessly integrated with the onstage musicians – László Rózsa (bass recorder), Jamie Akers (therbo), Ibrahim Aziz (viola de gamba) and Michael Clark (percussion and dulcimer). Their excellent playing is topped off with James Hall’s extraordinary clear countertenor voice.
The physical performance is provided by dance artist Aaron Jeffrey as Michelangelo and a splendidly naked Stefano Giglioni as the artist’s model and muse. The choreography explores Michelangelo’s drawing and technical measuring techniques with an intense connection between Jeffrey and Giglioni, who represents both model and sculpture made flesh – Michelangelo’s quest to free the body from the stone. Giglioni is physically ideal as his handsome face, splendid physique and strong, clear focused movement really do make him a Michaelangelo come alive.
The work explores the artist’s fascination with human anatomy, his passionate response to the male body and his intense Christian faith – the music creating a suitably religious atmosphere recalling Renaissance Florence. The design of the piece adds further atmosphere and exploration. The musicians’ music stands and chairs are evocative of the period. The simple circular set is hung with massive ropes and drenched with smoke and Andy Hamer’s lighting, which both creates a sense of place and strives to suggest the lighting techniques employed in paintings of the period – Chiaroscuro with slashes of intense colour.
Further visual stimulation comes from Barnaby Dicker’s film, which is a looping sketchbook of images and suggestions – echoing and adding to the movement and atmosphere on stage – flickering candles, household objects, the artist and model at work, his sketches animated. This element is arguably the least effective part of the show, as it sometimes rather distracts from the action on stage and injects an oddly modern touch, although it works well at times, especially when the candles appear and are extinguished in time with the chiming of Michael Clark’s bells and when the performers are absent.
Michelangelo Drawing Blood has firmly classical roots musically but its combination of different media to explore complex ideas and create a tantalising glimpse into the life and work of a remarkable man and a time so different from our own is entirely modern. It’s haunting, challenging, questioning, musically satisfying and quietly rather wonderful.