Neil Bartlett occupies an almost unique position in British theatre. Director, writer and performer, he stands astride the division between high art and high camp, with a little low cunning for good measure. His best work is poised between the aesthetic and the ascetic, combining a healthy theatrical extravagance with rigorous self-discipline. It's a juggling act that relies absolutely on balancing all the elements at his disposal. Too much austerity and you're left out in the cold.
Yet when everything is in harmony, you're drawn inexorably into the heart of the piece. Few things are less likely to cry out for a full-blown production than a song cycle, but Bartlett's staging of Britten's Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo was proof of his highly theatrical imagination.
The wave of opprobrium in the reaction to the arrest of George Michael is evidence of continued censoriousness surrounding homosexual acts. Michelangelo's love poems to Tommaso de 'Cavalieri, an aristocrat half his age, were considered so potentially scandalous that, when first published nearly a century later, all the homosexual references were changed to heterosexual. Britten, of course, used the original text when creating the cycle for his lover, Peter Pears, the first of a number of similarly dedicated works written throughout their 32-year relationship. Taking his cue from the circumstances of the composition and the elegant formality of concert hall performance, Bartlett used a silent chorus of 14 men, sporting spotless white tie and tails, as witnesses to Toby Spence's powerfully eloquent rendition. Between each song the witnesses grouped and regrouped around the soloist, one assuming the role of the loved one. …