Home / Drama / Eight Songs for A Mad King – Old Fruitmarket, Glasgow

Eight Songs for A Mad King – Old Fruitmarket, Glasgow

Ensemble:The Hebrides Ensemble with Mark Harmsworth

Artistic Director: Will Conway

Director:Ben Twist

Composer:Peter Maxwell Davies

Libretto:Randolph Stow

Reviewer:Val Baskott


The Hebrides Ensemble need little introduction as a Scottish-based collective of world class musicians. Since 1991, under the artistic direction of cellist and conductor, Will Conway, they have established a formidable reputation for innovative and imaginative performance with a commitment to new music.

King George III was known as the Mad King; he suffered from the then unknown condition of acute intermittent porphyria that led to episodes of irrational ranting and bizarre and violent behaviour. He was kept in supervised seclusion, and sometimes restrained. He kept singing birds in cages and used a little mechanical organ to teach them tunes, a popular fashion in his day.In this programme the theme of flight, of birds and of escape, runs through a continuous sequence of diverse pieces that reinforce and introduce Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’Eight Songs for A Mad King, a work which explores aspects of the King’s madness expressed through his interactions with his birds.

As reinforcement to the percussionist’s authoritarian rôle of Keeper in theSongsOliver Cox hammers out the powerful dramatic soloRebonds Bby Iannis Xenakis, a formidable rapid fire and rhythmically complex piece requiring drums with a wide range of pitches, but becoming at times almost lyrical on the blocks.

A quieter moment follows, with two contemporary reworkings around Purcell themes by Colin Matthews and Oliver Knussen, echoing Maxwell Davies’ parodies of Handel to come.

George Benjamin’sFlightcomes to life with airy delight in Rosemary Eliot’s expressive playing then Thomas Adès’sCatch, a tricky game of musical tig and hide and seek with peripatetic nimble clarinettist Yann Chiro leads the audience into theEight Songs of a Mad King.

Maxwell Davies’ extraordinary piece of theatre first disturbed the music scene in 1969. Randolph Stow’s poems tellingly incorporate some of the King’s own words, and Maxwell Davies’ music gives more than accompanying rôles to the flute, violin, cello and clarinet in four of the songs where they become individual birds, ‘projections stemming from the King’s words and music’ written by Davies. Musical borrowings and distortions underpin the sense of dislocation and draw us in as compassionate voyeurs to the King’s decay. Written for the exceptional vocal acrobatics of the late actor/singer Ray Hart it remains a challenge for the solo baritone, requiring some nine octaves of utterance. Mark Harmsworth is more than up for it, and gives an intensely moving performance as King George III, bringing great pathos as well as controlled manic exhibition to the rôle. Words can be lost in these extreme utterances, but maybe that’s part of the illusion and overall detracts little from the arresting vocal tour de force.

Last night’s staging was surprisingly intimate and involving within the cavernous space of the Old Fruit Market. Benjamin Twist’s tight direction contained the madness, minimal set design by Fiona Watt was just enough to convey confinement and malady, and Martin Palmer’s clever lighting clarified the King’s moments of rationality and insight. The whole is a well-conceived and engaging programme.

Only four performances. Don’t miss it.

Runs until 12th of November, then touring; Inverness Nov 13, Edinburgh, 15 Nov, Tain 16 Nov

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