Composer Oguz Kaplangi on scoring the Royal Lyceum’s Duchess of Malfi

Oguz Kaplangi in 'rehearsals for The Duchess
Oguz Kaplangi in 'rehearsals for The Duchess
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When the Lyceum Theatre, DOT Theatre of Istanbul and the Edinburgh International Festival opened their brilliant production of Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros in August 2017, Oguz Kaplangi was there – and not only there in the Lyceum, listening proudly to the astonishing musical score he had composed for the show. In this award-winning production by his friend Murat Daltaban, Kaplangi was right at the heart of the action; perched on stage behind an array of drums and instruments, recreating live, at every performance, the magnificent cycle of sinister waltzes and rhythmic marches that he had conjured up to accompany Ionesco’s 1959 absurdist drama, in which, over a day, most of the inhabitants of a small town gradually turn into rhinoceroses, stampeding around in herds, destroying everything in their path, and abandoning all sense of individuality and humanity.

At the 2018 Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland, the production picked up awards for Best Director, Best Production, Best Male Performance, and Best Music and Sound. And by that time, it was also clear that during the months of preparation for Rhinoceros, Kaplangi and his wife Cigdem – a writer and translator who recently created the text for a hugely successful Istanbul production of David Greig’s Strange Undoing Of Prudencia Hart – had made the decision to leave Istanbul, where they first met 20 years ago, and to settle in Edinburgh with their two children.

“We had been thinking of moving anyway,” says Kaplangi, who still owns a highly successful music production studio in Istanbul, “and we actually had an offer to go to Los Angeles. But as soon as I came to Edinburgh to work on Rhinoceros, I just fell in love. I didn’t want to move from one huge, chaotic city to another huge, chaotic city; and the atmosphere here, the welcome, the sense of living in a city with a strong cultural life and history – all of that was just great for us.

“And yes, I can talk about why we wanted to leave,” he says, referring to the atmosphere in Turkey under president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “I think after the coup attempt in 2016, it just began to feel more and more like the image we had in the production of Rhinoceros, where the spaces in Tom Piper’s set began to get smaller and smaller, narrower and narrower. We felt as if we had been put in our own small cube. Freedom of speech and freedom of the press is disappearing; you find that you’re not thinking positively and creatively. The political situation is like a whirlpool, sucking everything down.”

So far, the move has worked out well for Kaplangi, whose international work as a commercial composer involves creating everything from advertising jingles to music for American sitcoms, and means he can literally be based anywhere. His children have settled well in Edinburgh; and now he is working on the music for Zinnie Harris’s new Lyceum and Citizens’ version of The Duchess Of Malfi. Known simply as The Duchess, it stars Scottish actress Kirsty Stuart – recently seen in the television series Shetland and in Frances Poet’s Traverse play Gut – and opens at the Lyceum this weekend. He has also been commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company to compose the music for Hannah Khalil’s new play A Museum In Baghdad, and he is working on the Traverse’s autumn production of Oliver Emanuel’s Monstrous Bodies.

“In a way, it would be my dream to be able to focus entirely on making music for theatre,” says Kaplangi, but his musical career so far has been so passionately varied that it seems difficult to imagine him focussing entirely on one field.

Kaplangi grew up in Ankara in the 1980s, at a time when the city, he says, was “like the Seattle of Turkey”, full of creative people. His family was connected by marriage to the great Turkish singer-songwriter Baris Manco; and although Kaplangi originally intended to become a metallurgical engineer, he soon found himself playing in bands, creating and running a successful student radio station at Ankara University, and in his mid-20s moving to Istanbul to work in Manco’s recording studio, where he met many of the greats of Turkish music and learned to navigate the music industry, while also working with his friend Murat Daltaban’s DOT Theatre.

“I suppose my music now is showing all these influences, a huge mixture of styles,” says Kaplangi, “electronic, rock, world, orchestral, Turkish or Middle Eastern instruments, western beats. And when I’m writing music for the theatre it’s about finding a way to express a feeling, the feeling I get when I first read the play, and then discuss it with the director.”

So what is the feeling he is trying to conjure up in The Duchess, which marks his third collaboration with Zinnie Harris after Daltaban’s Istanbul production of her play How To Hold Your Breath, and her adaptation of Rhinoceros? “For me, this is a very sad, bitter and haunted play about a female character who tries to live her life, but is always fighting against male power, in her family and in society,” says Kaplangi.

“It’s a play about a human being fighting for her or his rights,” he adds, his eyes suddenly full of tears, “and it makes me very sad and angry to think how nothing has really changed in human behaviour, in all the centuries since it was written.

“The play has many different moods. So I have written a love song, and a lullaby, and a lament, for voice, keyboards, guitar, and a kind of Thai violin. And I hope people will feel the humanity of the Duchess’s story; and how strong it is, even though she is destroyed in the end.”

The Duchess is at the Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, until 8 June, and at the Citizens’ Theatre at the Tramway, Glasgow, 4-21 September.