St Matthew Passion at London’s National Theatre

Author: Clemency Burton-Hill

An insight from the Askonas Holt artists involved in this Jonathan Miller production.

As an oboist, Paul Goodwin had often been frustrated by ‘playing beautiful Bach lines that should have been equal to the singers, whilst sitting miles away from them’; and as a conductor he began to dream of presenting Bach’s ‘most theatrical’ works in a different way to the traditional church format. In 1990, he wrote to the theatre director Jonathan Miller, who, it turned out, shared his views that the St. Matthew Passion could also be presented as a unique theatrical work; and with Miller’s encouragement, he began developing an informal workshop in which some radical steps were taken. Performed in the round, with the Evangelist walking freely about, the orchestral players would be present on stage as equals with the singers and, unusually, everyone would be dressed in their ordinary clothes.

This week, a production of St. Matthew Passion opened at the National Theatre’s Olivier Theatre that is the latest refinement of that first embryonic workshop; the ever-developing fruits of over twenty years of Goodwin and Miller working together to bring this extraordinary piece of musical drama to the stage; often for a new audience, who experience its revelations both sublime and prosaic all the more keenly in this dramatic setting.

‘The point of presenting it theatrically, in a non-religious way,’ Goodwin tells me from his home in London, ‘is to let the audience take whatever bits of it they want. They could take something deeply religious from it, or they could simply experience it as a story. Or they could think, there’s a relevance to how people do things today; how crowds develop, for example.’ Encapsulating all this, Goodwin says, is a form of presentation that is inherently ‘un-egoistic. It’s the sum of its parts: everyone is equal. The singing is not egoistical. Jesus does not wear a halo. I don’t take enormous bows as the Grand Maestro. I just walk on and start sharing this story with people. Those were the principles I always wanted to work from.’

As well as some obvious changes in pacing, particularly in the chorales, which really enhance the dramatic narrative, Goodwin’s principles are manifested most obviously in the staging, which is, he says, heightened by Miller’s knack for ‘investigating psychological interactions between characters’. The orchestra share the space with the singers, and the choirs are treated as a collection of individual souls, with each singer wearing their own street clothes rather than the usual anonymous human smudge of black. ‘I wanted to have a choir of individuals rather than an English blended choir, and I wanted the idea that you could hear each individual voice as a character,’ Goodwin explains. ‘So you would see them acting out different parts in the passion story, and you would identify them through their different clothes. And then these starkly individual voices would be brought together into a beautiful sounding choir by the use of rhetorical musical gestures. So you really had an interesting spectrum for the audience both visually and aurally.’

Goodwin relishes the possibility that a single audience member, relating to a single member of the chorus in a way that would be unlikely in the traditional ‘serried ranks’ format, might think, ‘even subliminally – oh, I’m a bit like that!’ Such a personal reaction is not unlikely given that the production is sung, by memory, in English, in a translation that Goodwin and his successive casts have honed over the years. ‘I wanted to find some way of translating the text that was less Victorian,’ he jokes. ‘Fewer rhyming couplets; more accurate both to the German and to general speech. Through the years different singers have had their own suggestions, so it’s always a work in transition. Every time we do it, it changes. I’m not trying to create a great piece of poetry, because the language should not be dominant; it’s just a mechanism. But I want something that works, with a clear narrative, that respects Bach’s rhythms.’

For the singers, the challenges of this radical yet respectful approach are far outweighed by the rewards. Andrew Staples, who plays the Evangelist in the Olivier production, suggests that singing in the round, off-book and in the vernacular, invests the production with a particular, intimate power. ‘We’re telling a story that can be understood immediately,’ he points out. ‘It doesn’t need sur-titles like in an opera house; nor is it an abstract, poetic reflection on what’s happening. Instead you have a direct connection with the audience, which is much harder to achieve if you sing it in another language. And of course, when you’re singing from memory, there’s nothing else in the way.’

Staples, who thanks to Miller’s staging is particularly enjoying himself – ‘I get a good deal,’ he chuckles, ‘I get to sit in quadraphonic stereo between two orchestras and two choirs’ – is joined onstage by Mark Stone and Benjamin Hulett, both of whom are similarly impressed by the Goodwin-Miller approach. ‘Paul is great to work with; he’s very much an organic eco-friendly conductor in that he doesn’t dictate exactly how things should go,’ Hulett explains. ‘He’s always looking for your input which is really important with this being a theatrical production, because it means we’re not straitjacketed by his ideas.’

For Stone, who has been struck by the ‘fluidity and the drama’ that Goodwin and Miller, in their combined efforts, have ‘squeezed out of the music’, it’s also been exciting to think about the audiences who are coming to the work afresh. ‘Jonathan Miller is really working on a ‘less-is-more’ principle, and I think the production is all the more powerful because of what you have to invest in it as an audience member,’ he notes. ‘These people won’t just be there to close their eyes and listen; they’re coming to see drama.’

And drama, in all its most human intricacies, they will most certainly get. ‘One thing I always say about the Mathew Passion is there is no ‘wrong’,’ Goodwin adds. ‘If someone makes a mistake, it’s human, and this is, above all things, the most human drama.’

Performances run until Sunday 2 October at the National Theatre in London.

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