IN A SPOTLIT space at the front of the stage, holding a slightly incongruous modern microphone, stands a geeky, bespectacled young woman with an old-fashioned BBC accent, wearing a sensible 1940s-style skirt and cardigan. She is talking to the audience with a rare eloquence and passion about what she calls “music and electronics, intriguingly inter-related”; and she is Daphne Oram, one of the most interesting and neglected British composers of the 20th century – or rather, the version of Daphne Oram conjured up for the 2017 Tron Mayfesto festival by the actor and writer Isobel McArthur, and the young Glasgow company Blood Of The Young, in a co-production with the Tron.
Both at the Tron, Glasgow **** (each)
Music is the theme, at this year’s Mayfesto, and the relationship between music, words and theatre; and it’s a subject explored with impressive passion and commitment in this opening show, which offers us a 100-minute glimpse of the life of Daphne, who was born in 1925, became a co-founder of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, and began to work with electronic sound even before she joined the BBC as a 17-year-old trainee, in 1942.
As soon as Daphne squeezes back through the fourth wall, leaving the space where she can speak to a 21st century audience, she therefore becomes absorbed, with an ensemble of four male performers, into a surprisingly wordy world of mid-20th-century family life and BBC committee culture, both strikingly patriarchal. And if the decision to try to reproduce that tone of voice occasionally gives the script – co-written by McArthur and director Paul Brotherston – the air of a Monty Python spoof on British establishment life, there’s a seriousness, poignancy and creative passion about McArthur’s central performance that acts as a constant reminder of the issues at stake, as Daphne eventually leaves the BBC in 1958, utterly frustrated by its failure to take her seriously as a composer.
What emerges is a strange and powerful show about the evolving history of sound and music, driven along by a fine original score by Glasgow-based composer-musician and Daphne Oram enthusiast Anneke Kampman, performed live on stage. And just as the score mysteriously combines Oram’s own music with Kampman’s 21st century inspiration, so the whole show leaves us with a sense of a remarkable life, poised somewhere between the mid-20th century and a timeless place where there is only music and sound, and those rare people dedicated to exploring all its possibilities, at any cost.
Ramesh Meyyappan’s Off Kilter – also a Tron co-production, and directed by the theatre’s artistic director Andy Arnold – is in many ways a much simpler show, a wordless 55-minute solo piece in which a solitary man living in a lonely flat receives a letter he would rather avoid, terminating his employment.
Yet the sheer artistry Meyyappan brings to his performance – and the power of Joel Nah’s supporting score and soundscape, which echoes the central character’s inner turmoil in fierce alternations of noise, stillness and vibration – makes Off Kilter a profoundly absorbing and moving show. One of Daphne Oram’s inventions was a reverse-oscilloscope machine, through which people could create a sound by drawing a shape with a pen; and in Off Kilter, Joel Nah’s score sounds like the shape of the central character’s pain and vulnerability, drawn on a simple table-top with one of Meyyappan’s infinitely expressive hands, and magically transformed into sound.
Daphne Oram’s Wonderful World Of Sound is at the Tron Theatre tonight, and on tour to Aberdeen, Inverness, Edinburgh, Peebles, Galashiels and Dundee, until 2 June. Off Kilter, final performance tonight