Quite what they were expecting when attending a theatre-concert based on Mozart, the audience at the Barbican didn’t seem to know. There was promise to take the ennui out of a concert experience and add some visual spice to it. The delivery on that promise turned out to be a little more daring than simply that.
Thankfully it’s not controversial just for the sake of it. As a creative endeavour Betty Nansen Teatret, Cederholm & Hellemann Bros’ Mozart Undone is a tremendous achievement. A balance between theatrical performance, modern dance piece and music concert, the event reimagines and illustrates some 28 pieces from all corners of the Köchel catalogue. Well-known melodies are constantly broken down and visual expectations are reversed and played with. The piece tumbles across the genres of modern music history stealing movements from country music to electronic, from pop ballad to soft rock. The characters, too, are like feathers blowing from one situation to the next.
It starts with a harmless flirtation on a piano. In a decrepit theatre space, a group of eleven performers and musicians innocently fool around with water dripping from the ceiling as a version of Piano Concerto No.23 in A, 2. Adagio is being played live on stage. Usually instruments are hidden away, but to have them as part of the action is a nice treat, and not just when the electric guitar is played like a fiddle might be played by a possessed violinist. Over time the performance works itself into a wild frenzy of disturbing images spliced with slapstick humour and plenty of glitter.
Lotte Andersen from the Danish crime drama The Bridge and her fellow cast member are once in highly inventive makeshift rococo costumes (Anja Vang Kragh) and in the next minute locked in hour-glasses, submerged in bath tubs or transformed into nightmarish plaster orcs. The scope of just what the performers do with their voices and how they melt into one organic Gesamtkunstwerk is extraordinary. Claus Hempler is channeling David Bowie on more than one occasion and his powdery, dramatic voice adds a surreal cabaret dimension. When the vocally stunning Louise Hart and the rocker of the ensemble, Bjørn Fjæstad, perform ‘Under The Heartwood Tree’ we get hints of Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds. The breadth of musical trickery paired with visually exciting transformations is full of flourishes and never fails to amuse and surprise.
If you are a Mozart purist then you might not appreciate the unabashed way the ensemble reworks the classic melodies to an audio-visual spectacle. The rejigging of songs not only adds an additional layer of a different musical genre, but it also causes a significant change in the visual contexts the classic Mozart songs are associated with. Viewers might take exception to loading Mozart’s tunes with claustrophobic or sexual imagery because any original artistic intention might be subverted or overpowered.
Audiences tend to either love or hate what they don’t fully understand because it feels as if those pieces reach into a different realm. Although contrasting motifs of pure water and sullied flesh and bellicose humans, Nikolaj Cederholm’s direction steers clear of tying anything up too neatly. Inventing new forms of musical expression is what the wunderkind Mozart has become known for, so what better way to pay homage than to use his music to explore new theatrical formats? Mozart Undone is definitely whimsical and may have picked up some influences from iconic director Robert Wilson, but the conviction of the concept of a theatre-concert upholds nonetheless. There are few shows truly as spellbinding as this one. Unsurprisingly there were instant standing ovations at the final bow.