Magazine article The Spectator

Sound Effects

Magazine article The Spectator

Sound Effects

Article excerpt

There is a long tradition of music to accompany drama. Shakespeare's plays, for example, would not only have been accompanied by, and embroidered and studded with, different sorts of music, but almost all contain at least one song, and it is a subject that he frequently puts into the mouths of his characters; from Bottom the Weaver claiming to have 'a reasonable good ear in music' as he calls for 'the tongs and the bones', to Orsino opening Twelfth Night with his demands for an excess of it and Richard II complaining 'how sour sweet music is,/ When time is broke and no proportion kept'. Songs were used to evoke mood, as magical charms and incantations, in order to establish the character or mental state of the singer. Instrumental music accompanied dances and masques, provided interludes between acts and created atmosphere to establish the emotional climate of a scene.

Plays today use music in a similar fashion. Fewer playwrights habitually incorporate songs in their work than in Shakespeare's day, but the renditions of 'Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered', 'Wish me luck as you wave me goodbye' and the Pet Shop Boys' 'It's a sin' are all hugely telling moments in Alan Bennett's The History Boys. Nicholas Hytner, directing the play at the National Theatre, was involved with the shaping of the work from an early stage - indeed, according to Bcnnett, inspired the idea for the play that he 'didn't quite write' but which became the play that now exists. The music that Bennett has written in for the boys to perform represents a world that is not their own; in particular, it is the world of Hector, their idiosyncratic and inspirational teacher. Hytner says that shortly before rehearsals began, when the decision was made to incorporate a video element in the production, he also decided to add more Eighties pop music. This has the effect both of evoking the period and also of giving something of their own to Hector's pupils. When one of them says of another's Pet Shop Boys moment, That's crap', he retorts, 'So is Gracie Fields. Only that's his crap. This is our crap.'

Hytner says that he usually knows almost from the point of deciding to direct a particular play whether he wants to include music and, frequently, the sort of music he wants. For David Hare's Stuff Happens he knew that a play about the build-up to the war in Iraq was not going to be something in need of background music, of mood enhancement or atmosphere. 'An ironist's music' was what he needed. 'I knew from the beginning that it would almost certainly be Shostakovich, probably the 8th string quartet.' Talking to Gerard McBurney, who made the arrangement, was the next step, and he, being steeped in Shostakovich's music, had a number of other suggestions to make, but they all in the end led back to Hytner's original choice. The quartet was, after all, dedicated by its composer to 'the victims of fascism and war', and its lack of sentimentality, its slicing, sinewy quality, contribute a painfully ironic punctuation to the action unfolding on stage.

Where live music is concerned, there are two things that Hytner has made National Theatre policy: for the players to be visible and for there to be no amplification unless it is specifically designed from the beginning, as is the case for the epic, two-part Philip Pullman adaptation of His Dark Materials. This could hardly be more different in content and style from either the Hare or the Bennett. 'It's big, bold storytelling, and the action is often pared back, like in a screenplay, to give more space to the music and to the image being presented. …

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