Grimes on the Beach, Aldeburgh, June 2013Posted on 23 June 2013
It all started with a Spitfire, flying low across the sea, first one way then the other, before looping the loop and vanishing into the distance. This reminder of 1945 fitted the costumes and ostensibly precarious sets by Leslie Travers in Tim Albery’s excellent production.
Watching Britten’s Grimes on a set that ran along the beach with the dark sea behind, was a moving experience, and not just for the location. Alan Oke was riveting as Grimes, a determined, ambitious man with a ‘lean and hungry look’, who wants to beat them all. What harbour shelters peace … has nothing plaintive about it. This is a man of fierce visions who will succeed in making a fortune on his own before accepting Ellen Orford as wife. A man who would fight the elements themselves to prove to the contemptible townsfolk he is better than they — more talented, successful and wealthy. Of course it ends in disaster. The boat that Grimes arrives in at the start is winched up to centre stage where it remains, facing the audience, until he finally leaves for a watery death at the end.
Sitting on the beach with dark clouds in the sky above lent an air of realism to the storm in Act I, and after Grimes re-enters and stands alone to intone his soliloquy Now the Great Bear and Pleiades … the clouds parted to reveal an almost-full moon, which vanished immediately he finished. Lucy Carter’s atmospheric lighting gave him an eerie glow, despite the fact that it remained daylight until the start of Act II. The rest was in darkness, and during the fifth sea interlude at the start of Act III Grimes staggers on carrying the boy’s coat, hiding it under part of the set, after which colourful lights spring to life giving the final tavern scene a merry appeal before the denouement.
The later scene where Giselle Allen as Ellen Orford and David Kempster as Captain Balstrode confer and come to their uncomfortable conclusions, while Catherine Wyn-Rogers as Mrs Sedley peeps round corners, following the conversation, was beautifully done. All three of these singers gave excellent performances, with other fine individual contributions, particularly from Charles Rice as Ned Keene the apothecary, and Robert Murray as Bob Boles, whose drunken sanctimony is tolerated, except when he attacks the nieces. They and Auntie were well portrayed by Alexandra Hutton, Charmian Bedford, and Gaynor Keeble.
Good physicality in this production, as when Grimes hits Ellen or when he roughly threatens the boy, and Ned Keene almost comes to blows with Hobson the Carter in Act I. Very fine acting and singing all round under excellent musical direction from Steuart Bedford, who pre-recorded the Britten Pears orchestra playing in the concert hall at Snape Maltings.
With microphones on the singers they could be heard even if they turned away, as they did when looking out to sea for the sinking boat, witnessing Grimes’s dreams slide into the depths of the North Sea. Despite seaside wind and rain as potential enemies this risky undertaking was a triumph — a compelling production I shall not easily forget.