This well-known piece of contemporary opera takes us through the emergence of Satyagraha (roughly ‘truth-force’ in Sanskrit), a non-violent philosophy formed partly in response to the plight of Indians in South Africa. Gandhi’s reactions to real historical events which are traced in the show are the moments that came to constitute his political doctrine.
It was certainly a mesmerising watch. So hypnotic in fact, that my friend admitted to having fallen asleep as Gandhi took his first step up onto a soapbox about to address a crowd. Thankfully, when he woke up, Gandhi had only just reached the top.
At times the pace was just distracting. You started to wonder what it was like to walk that slowly and kept an eye out for wobbling. When copies of the Indian Opinion newspaper where thrown at Gandhi by his denouncers, we witnessed the uncomfortable technical challenge of throwing bits of paper through the air…in slow motion.
There was also a sense that the production could have indulged us more in terms of spectacle, despite Phelim McDermott’s impressive stage design. There was a particularly disappointing scene where a crowd of immense, grotesque puppets depicting European immigrants to South Africa swarmed their way (slowly) across stage, their limbs controlled deftly by actors on stilts. Breathless with expectation, I felt like Oliver with his bowl as the giants simply came to a halt centre stage, as if for a photo, and then left; never to be seen again! (Ironically, this is the most widely publicised photo of the show.)
The feeling of self-denial and slowness is, however, surely the point here. The reason Philip Glass chose Gandhi as his subject is that the composer’s style of composition, stubbornly repetitive and relentless, mirrors Gandhi’s cyclic and ‘you’re in it for the long haul’ philosophy. In this way, Glass makes us, in our comfy chairs, undergo at least a hint of the patience and self-control that constitutes ‘truth force’.
In fact, it is not true either that we are completely deprived of bright moments. In an initially bemusing episode in the final act, actors unravel reams of sellotape around the stage which are then manipulated into the shape of an angelic figure. This form, with its illuminated halo-like ring of a head, then looks out to the audience, assuring us all that they did know what they were doing with the tape all along. Finally, these plastic streamers are wrapped into a cocoon so as to evoke the cycles of birth, rebirth and a spirit of truth which is timeless. Specifically, the figure to whom the spirit of Satyagraha passes in the final act, is Martin Luther King, who we see speak at a podium with his back to us for an excruciatingly long time.
While Gandhi’s spirit lived on through mid-20th Century civil rights movements, the notion of ‘truth’ might seem lost in today’s politics of quick decisions and promises of instant change. On the other hand, the sexual harassment scandal in Hollywood reminds us that sometimes it really does just take time for the truth to emerge, and it is this empowering but tormenting message that this performance leaves us with.
Satyagraha is on at the London Coliseum until the 27th February.
Words, Joe Downing
Photos, Tristram Kenton