Akhnaten by Philip Glass at the Coliseum, brings the ancient Egyptians thrillingly to life. The staging is extraordinary. The delights for the eyes and ears on offer are simply breath-taking. By turns haunting, hypnotic and hallucinatory this production is three hours of mesmerising stimulation bordering on the transcendental. I was absolutely enthralled. The closest analogy I can give is with Maurice Ravels Bolero. But where the latter enchants for about 16 minutes Akhnaten manages to do it for the best part of three hours. So I would urge people to put aside the easy clichés about modern music being difficult and give this opera the benefit of the doubt. You won’t be disappointed. It’s a wonderful three hours which will stimulate, inspire and can but lead one on to other works by Philip Glass I have no doubt.
The direction by Phelim McDermott and the set design by Tom Pye is sublime. Imagine walking between the Egyptian galleries at The British Museum and the Mark Rothko galleries at Tate Modern and you get some idea of what they have achieved. The difference being that they get the Egyptian galleries at the British Museum to come alive with singing, talking and juggling, yes juggling, actors and performers. The Rothko-like backdrops give each scene a terrific visual shock and awe. Famously Rothko’s paintings have been likened to Buddhist TV sets and in this production along with the haunting music, wonderfully played under the assured leadership of Karen Kamensek and superb singing make for an all-encompassing artistic achievement. By that I mean that colour, shape, costumes, sound and movement work together to create an effect which is nothing short of transcendental. Remember the giant Sun which mesmerised us all at Tate Modern when it shone down on the Turbine Hall? Well in Akhnaten we have that sun as a backdrop along with all the other elements I’ve referred to. The effect is overwhelming, powerful, magical and otherworldly.
The trance-like quality that Akhanaten achieves is all the more impressive in that it is kept up for three hours. But our interest never wavers because there is always two, three, four or more simultaneous treats for us to savour. Firstly of course the music is utterly enchanting. The slow persistent and repetitive refrain keeps us on track, then the ever changing kaleidoscope of colour in both the costumes and the backdrops work their magic. The troop of jugglers never cease to fascinate as they throw and catch balls large and small in complex patterns, the acting is outstanding and the singing is spine tingling. As one’s eye moves across the stage, taking all this in, one is like a child in a toy shop whereby there is an embarrassment of riches. I particularly liked the clever reference to Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending A Staircase as Akhnaten (Anthony Roth Costanzo, superb) naked, walks slowly down the stairs right in the centre of the stage towards the audience. It’s done with such reverence and sincerity, this is after all the recreation of The Egyptian Book of The Dead, that one feels it to be an authentic recreation of Ancient Egyptian ritual and tradition.
Some of the scenes recreating ritual practices are superb. For example the emergence of the naked Akhnaten from a large royal robe, the carrying of his naked body by the guard of honour and then dressing him in his new robes is spellbindingly gripping. Keel Watson as Aye in his New Orleans style Mardi Gras outfit of black suit, black shoes, black umbrella, black hat topped off with a white skull works because it connects the rituals of death and dying across time and space. We feel that ancient Egypt and New Orleans share the same timeless humanity.
With the half term fast approaching, I can think of no better way to introduce your children to the wonders of the ancient Egyptians than a day out at the Egyptian galleries of the British Museum, followed by a walk along the Embankment to look at Cleopatra’s Needle and then to round off a perfect day with a visit to the Coliseum to see Akhnaten, where under 18’s go free.
If that doesn’t whet your child’s appetite for all things Egyptian then frankly nothing will.
Review by John O’Brien