Du Bist Da, Du Bist Fort

This is a strange little piece but I love it. It seems I am not alone in this because to our surprise and delight it won the 2013 Junge Ohren prize for music theatre. The irony is, I took it on reluctantly because I thought myself too tired to write another stage work immediately after The Stolen Smells. In a very short space of time it turned into a labour of love. I was tempted across the sea to Düsseldorf because Annette Bieker's libretto was one of the best bits of writing for music theatre that I've ever seen. Theater Kontra-Punkt, the company that she runs with her husband, Frank Schulz, is the sort of kitchen table rackety outfit that easily steals my heart, and the professionalism and sheer fun of it all sucked me joyfully in. Here's their website:


2013 Junge Ohren production team

2013 Junge Ohren prize

Do take a look - they're wonderful.  By a curious coincidence, their last collaboration with a Brit was with Philip Ardagh of Awful End fame.  A couple of years ago a small gaggle of autograph hunters mistook me for him and were most put out when I resolutely insisted on being me.  So maybe it was meant to be; Fate is often as much of a bugger as Art is.

Technically the thing was a beast.  Annette and Frankie wanted an orchestra-free show so I was presented with a chorus SSATB (one of each) a performing space and nothing else.  Help!  Fortunately, the singers were not your average opera chorus and knew how to move, dance, juggle and improvise but, so far as I could tell, had no idea how to complain!  I immediately scored for voices and junkpile which is something I often do when cornered.   The junkpile included a green plastic trombone (which the tenor singer mastered in about half an hour) a dustbin, megaphones, duck calls, swannee whistles and all the fun of the fair, and I decided to use a technique that I haven't employed since A Day Close to Summer: a frantic tourettish procession of parodies, pastiches and sub-Bugs Bunny lunacy.  There was calypso, madrigal, fugue, a mock-Rossini aria called E Pericoloso Sporgersi (for which I wrote some dreadful words since although there is no end of good verse in print, if you want really bad poetry it's usually quicker to compose it yourself) and no small quantity of musique concrète: I may be the first person ever to use swannee whistles and duck calls in a funereal context.

The show is based on a book by Bart Moyaert called Missen ist Moelijk and is a brave and funny exploration of loss in childhood.  It's a triptych; the first part is about a small child who makes friends with a woman whose daughter has drowned, and learns that grieving is a natural and healthy thing.  In the second, a slightly older girl is confused between relief that her drunken, violent father has gone away into rehab and sorrow at missing him.  She finds resolution of a sort by meeting a teenage neighbour who is head over heels in puppy love: (I had a lot of fun writing this character an over-the-top aria a la manière de Hollander, Komm doch her mein Schatz) and in a moving outburst learns to let go and dance to the Trini-style calypso that ends the act.  The final scene, Unsre Gasse, is a portrait of a down at heel cul-de-sac.  It made me think of those wonderful Heinrich Zille paintings of street urchins dancing in the slums and the music is suitably louche.  This version of loss is the loss of face: a showoff cyclist has accidents,  a mother gets her car stuck in the narrow street and a little girl is angered at losing a song and dance contest.  The emotional range of all this is extraordinary and I am amazed by how much Frankie managed to cram into a scant hundred minutes.

I'm not doing justice to the story at all, but unless you can read German or Dutch you'll just have to take my word for it: despite Bart's great fame and reputation in the German-speaking world, anglophone publishers are too timid to publish him.  You see, he's an artist, a proper one, and that means he writes books that are individual creations, not the bland, tidily marketable series beloved of book consultants or whichever  pusillanimous tribe it is who run things these days.  God knows why; do they really think that their endless series of indistinguishable, insipidly written books are of value to anyone with a brain?  And do they not realise that there is no such thing as a stupid child?  I find myself wanting to turn into Andy Hamilton's version of Satan and yell take them to the pit of book marketing executives.

I've been worried of late that I've been too emotionally stable, so I'm making an English version of the show.  As I've found before, the accent has to shift from the German middle class to something approaching Estuary if it is to work.  It's all good clean fun and it will have me in the funny farm before I'm finished with it.

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