Thursday 23 November 2017

Stage: A chorus of approval for making choir cool

Sweet harmony: Barry John O'Connor and Fiona Bell in Wayne Jordan's version of Oedipus.
Sweet harmony: Barry John O'Connor and Fiona Bell in Wayne Jordan's version of Oedipus.

Maggie Armstrong

Some people take up swing, others play football; more go on internet dates. When Tom Lane moved to Dublin, he joined the choir at Christ Church Cathedral. "A choir is a community. It's great camaraderie. You go to the pub, you have parties," says 31-year-old Tom, the lay vicar chorister who became a leading composer for the Irish stage.

Every night at the Abbey, his work soars from the Greek chorus in Wayne Jordan's new version of Oedipus. Under Tom's musical direction, dissonant harmonies are the sweet antidote to the poison that has overrun the city of Thebes in Sophocles's tragedy of incest. Singing is the foil to a doom-laden script that inevitably offers minimal laughs.

His contribution is vital. I don't know about you, but music in a play is one reason I don't stay at home and read magazines, or go to the cinema to watch Michael Fassbender's take on The Bard as Macbeth more than once. When a theatre's budget or good sense stretches to a composer and live music, you get a great package deal of words, pictures and melodies.

From Bristol, with a German, Lutheran mother, church was not part of growing up for Tom. He learned piano, viola and singing. Bristol was musically rich, but with drum and base and the freaky, trip-hop club sounds of Massive Attack and Portishead - electronic hip hop many a millennial teen tripped out to, Tom included. He was braced for anything.

From the profane to the sacred, he went to study music in Balliol College, Oxford - which produced such sons as Boris Johnson, Christopher Hitchens, Graham Greene and Gerard Manly Hopkins. It was traditionally a college for radical left-wing people, which in the context of Oxford is not very radical, Tom admits. Though he did learn radical choral singing there - mixing a cappella with traditional church music - and went on to the Royal Academy of Music and to the University of the Arts in Berlin.

"There's no point in going to bad places," the composer says with an awkward smile.

Tom came here in 2009 knowing two people and having written one work - a college opera set in Ikea called Flatpack. Eager to join the stage at all costs, he answered a call for male physical performers in Emma Martin's experimental dance piece Dogs. In the intervening years he has built up an empire of credits, the sky the limit of forms he will try, amid writing his PhD on composition for UCC. He has become a lieutenant to young Wayne Jordan, doing the music for Twelfth Night, Romeo and Juliet and now Oedipus. This month a new, redneck-America version of the Russian ballet Coppelia will feature Tom's re-orchestration of the classical score when it tours the nation over the next two months.

"You can be propelled quite quickly through the ranks here," he says of his adoptive city's "vibrant" dance, theatre and opera scene. But his reception hasn't been without prejudice.

"When you play classical music and have an English accent, some people think you went to Eton and had organ lessons from the age of three. I went to a state school and didn't hear an Anglican evensong until I was 18."

With Oedipus, he has taken choral singing out of church and into a secular, public forum. In WB Yeats's 1926 Oedipus in the Abbey, and in Frank McGuinness's 2008 Oedipus at the National Theatre, the chorus are all men, as if drawn from the ranks of elder statesmen, as it was in Ancient Greece. But Wayne and Tom's chorus are individuals from all society. They don't wear the cassocks and surplices of church dress, they strut in skinny jeans and t-shirts. In brief, Tom has made choir cool.

There is something deeper we can take from the unity of voices in Oedipus, too."The chorus is a nice reflection of society at large," says Tom. "Everyone has their own part, and if everyone does their bit right, it will all work. But if they don't, it will all fall apart. It's the same with a choir. It's a microcosm, it's a team."

"When they sing, everyone has to be doing everything in relation to everyone else all the time. If everyone was like that in everyday life, there would be no war."

Oedipus runs at the Abbey until October 31; Coppelia opens at The Helix on October 29 and tours 25 venues until December 20.

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