On a makeshift prison bed, a figure lay curled in pain. His shirt rumpled. His body bruised. Ever so slowly, he moved – shifting uncomfortably into a sitting position. But as he began to speak (or rather sing), all bodily constraints seemed to melt away – leaving us with only the voice and essence of the man.
Martin Carter lives on in Guyana and around the world through his poems. They leap off the page, lash out from the tongue. But a new one-man opera by British-Guyanese composer Hannah Kendall, based on the works of Guyana’s poet of resistance, brings his words crashing into your consciousness in a whole new way.
Set in 1953, when Carter was imprisoned by the British on the charge of “spreading dissension”, The Knife of Dawn is a taut, tense and uncomfortable watch.
Performed by a small chamber orchestra, the music is discordant, dark, repetitive, unsettling – much like, I imagine, being in prison. I yearned for a break. For a change of scenery. For a bit of light relief. But even familiar touches of everyday Guyanese life – pepperpot, cassava etc – in Canadian-Guyanese writer Tessa McWatt‘s libretto brought no comfort.
As the main (and only) lead, baritone Eric Greene had to grab and hold our attention throughout. And his physical, nuanced performance was up to the job. Wincing and flinching with pain at the outset, his transformation was all the more powerful when – empowered and healed by his own words – he stood like a giant on the bed where he had once cowered.
Greene may not physically resemble Martin Carter, but as the human embodiment of the poet’s words, his tall, muscled form is fitting. Sometimes having those words sung added new layers and depths, other times I felt they took the power and meaning away. “This is the dark time, my love” always sends chills through me when reading, but I didn’t feel that fear in Greene’s voice.
Like reading Carter’s poetry, though, it’s inevitable that you bring to the work different expectations and interpretations. And I think I missed various nods or references. A friend was reminded of a discordant European musical trend of the 1960s. While in an interview with Caribbean Beat, Kendall herself spoke of weaving in a traditional lullaby she remembered from her Guyanese (I presume) grandmother.
In that same interview, Kendall talks about her hopes of bringing the show to Guyana. Chatting to a friend in the street back in Georgetown yesterday, they asked what the show was like and how it would go down here. I thought back to one (Guyanese) friend’s post-show analysis, half-jokingly saying how she wanted to call out “Just eat the damn food!” every time Carter reluctantly but defiantly returned away his full plate.
Given the lively response of many Guyanese audiences – where comments, heckles and jokes are often greeted with as much laughter and interest as the show – I’d like to see what people here make of The Knife of Dawn. Will the performance work on Guyanese soil? Will it get the same positive reception (a standing ovation, no less) as it met at London’s Roundhouse – and in subsequent reviews in the Financial Times and Guardian.
It would be interesting to explore how the show could adapt to its surroundings here: for example losing some of the historic explanations in the lyrics and involving local musicians and singers. If not Greene, then perhaps the two backing sopranos and alto (whose pure, very English voices as Carter’s conscious or internal voice somehow jarred with me slightly) or the musicians – in this production one harp, one violin, one viola and one violoncello.
Whatever happens next, the potential and boldness of this opera – Kendall’s first – is huge and I’m glad I was able to support it through my attendance. Next stop… Guyana? New York? Toronto? Let’s get this Guyanese cultural circuit rolling.