‘If there’s no blood, there’s no entertainment,’ shouts Netia Jones, as her Puck catapults himself high into the air, and lands with a sickening thump on the rehearsal room floor. ‘Gosh – are you all right?’ she asks anxiously. This young British opera director is known for being a benign martinet, demanding millisecond precision in coordination between sight and sound. But as the creator and leading exponent of a new theatrical art-form, she demands nothing less of herself.
With an organist father and an artist mother, Jones was stage-struck ever since seeing a production of Britten’s Peter Grimes when she was ten; work-experience during her teens at English National Opera reinforced that obsession. ‘I was always fascinated by the idea of a visual world and a musical world coming together, to make something else,’ she says. Hanging around at the Ruskin school of art at Oxford, where she was studying languages and literature at the university, she learned to draw, acquiring the sensitive line she now employs when designing the costumes and sets for her productions.
Working on theatre projects, she found herself invited to design a London production of Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel. For this she began experimenting with a new technique she had devised, in the process stumbling on its dramatic potential when it occurred to her that the famished protagonists in her production could be made to seem to eat the scenery. In a subsequent production she discovered the technique’s comic potential when, during a tennis match between two characters, her technique provided the ball, and perfectly synchronised its wayward trajectory.
That technique is based on light which she projects, as in a film, onto everything on stage. What makes it dramatic is the way she synchronises her projected images movement-by-movement, note-by-note, with the movements of live performers on stage, and with music from the orchestra. Her magnum opus (to date) is a production of Oliver Knussen’s opera based on two whimsical tales by the children’s author Maurice Sendak – Where the Wild Things Are and Higglety Pigglety Pop! Here she exploited the juxtaposition of the real and the projected in dozens of witty ways: a live character kicking a projected door which then obediently slammed shut, another character seeming to draw a giant (projected) lion and putting her head in its mouth. This was not so much surrealism as the heightened reality of the child’s-eye view.
All this wizardry comes out of Jones’s laptop, at which she presides like a concert pianist. And the comparison is apposite, in that she constantly talks of ‘playing’ her productions: combining video and film software, her computer’s 26 keys control as many different facets of the movement, colour, and behaviour of the light she projects. And just as a pianist depends on muscle-memory to juggle the thousands of notes in a concerto, so Jones depends on that same faculty to synchronise her imagery fluently and flexibly with her real-life singers. It can take a year for her fingers to learn to ‘play’ a production. ‘Technology changes, but ideas don’t,’ she says. ‘Shakespeare would have used projection had he been able to. It’s just a beautiful new tool, to surprise and delight.’
It’s typical of this restlessly prolific director that this month she should be unveiling two new shows almost simultaneously. In the Norwegian city of Bergen she will present a Messiah boldly on an empty stage, onto which she will simply project the text in the original ‘blackface’ typography of the King James Bible, while in the Snape Maltings hall near Aldeburgh she will premiere her production of Benjamin Britten’s take on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
As Jones points out, magic is so integral to the Dream that her own pyrotechnics are almost secondary, and those pyrotechnics will largely be concentrated in the hands of Oberon, whom she regards as almost psychopathically controlling. In her view, his theft of Tytania’s beloved Little Indian Boy is a moral outrage: ‘Normally I regard the fact that I’m a female director as totally irrelevant, but I see no charm in a “happy” ending where a man can manipulate a woman to such a degree that he steals her adopted son after drugging her – especially as she was so close to the boy, whose mother had died.’ So in this reading, unlike in Britten’s libretto where Oberon keeps the boy for himself, Tytania gets him back.
Jones’s projected imagery for this staging will reflect back on the hall itself and its environs. Snape was one of the first Victorian industrial buildings to be transformed into a cultural space – it was built for the malting of barley, as the first stage in the brewing of beer – but it’s still surrounded by relics of the old machinery. And photos of the original workers are in Jones’s view so redolent of the rough sons of the soil in Shakespeare’s play that they have furnished ideas for the staging. With images filmed in and around Snape – and those of its buildings which are still unconverted – this production will turn on the visual contrast between the rusty and rustic on one hand, and the magical cleanness of the projected world on the other. And the fairies will merge with their arboreal background: dotted through the reed-beds of Snape are little oases of woodland which have remained untouched for centuries, and Jones has photographed these in the dreamy style of the first Victorian nature-photographers.
And fifty years after Britten’s dream of converting this hall for concert use became a reality, the whole Snape Maltings complex is currently embarking on a new era. Outlined by Roger Wright, its chief executive, the plan is to develop the already-existing activities at Snape to form a creative campus functioning all through the year. All the strands of the Aldeburgh Festival – from artistic residencies to a healthcare section specialising in dementia treatment – will be expanded.
Access will still be arduous, whether by car, train, or taxi, as Aldeburgh is both metaphorically and literally a world apart. But that is its magic – as it was when Britten and his partner Peter Pears first set up this festival on the bleak and windswept Suffolk coast, shortly after the end of the Second World War.
Published in The Economist on 3.6.2017