Do the things that frighten you, they said. Put yourself in the way of surprise, they said. And that was how I found myself in the middle of Michel Van der Aa’s The Book of Disquiet, certainly the most challenging and probably the oddest job I’ve had for a while.
I’ve been a fan of Louis Andriessen since James Poke’s Icebreaker introduced me to his music. That Michel studied with Andriessen intrigued me. That he was known as a polymath hooked me. And that he needed an actor capable of reading music – quite complex contemporary music – for a UK premiere with the London Sinfonietta was enough to land me.
Although I work with musicians a lot, I’m always looking to expand my repertoire (40 pieces and counting). If I could do this one, I thought – the only person on stage throughout a 70-minute fully scored “opera without singing” – then nothing need frighten me again. Almost immediately after saying yes I heard Michel’s Violin Concerto on Radio 3 and was captivated. Good sign.
Fernando Pessoa is a well-kept secret unless you’re Portuguese, when he’s a god. His Book of Disquiet is unclassifiable (he called it a “factless autobiography”); a loose collection of confessional scraps and fragments written in various voices, none of which seem to be Pessoa himself. He called his alter-egos heteronyms, and Michel chose five of them to tell his story. Four on film, speaking Portuguese (the Fado singer Ana Moura performs two haunting numbers) and a fifth, me, appearing live, conversing and sometimes interacting with the films. Together, by dancing around our identities, we gradually approach some sense of self.
When Michel realised he wanted film to be part of his compositions, he thought “I must make these films myself. But I don’t know how to make films. So I’ll go to film school.” And he did, studying at New York Film Academy in 2002. The films in BoD are beautiful and eerie, a major part of the composition.
Richard Zenith, who edited The Book of Disquiet, suggested that the best way to meet it might be as an envelope full of marginalia, much as it was found after Pessoa’s death. Michel’s treatment honoured that, following what Douglas Adams called “rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty”. The piece is in ten scenes, each with a broad theme and setting. It’s scored for small ensemble: strings, wind, trumpet, a very busy percussionist with whom I share a duet, and most importantly Simon Hendry on laptop, playing “AA”, the name Michel gives to his fusion of soundtrack and film. Staging the show is quite a challenge: films are projected onto two large circular screens, a third metal circle is played by the percussionist, plus click tracks, amplification, lighting…
Michel’s technical savvy helped me learn the score: I was sent a MIDI file, which I transferred to my phone. Very useful, albeit like trying to waltz with a skeleton. Timings made tempi for the live band critical when it came to putting meat on the bones, but both Alan Pierson in our Montclair, New Jersey version and the Portuguese conductor Joana Carneiro with the Sinfonietta at the Coronet were very precise. I enjoyed their surprise when they asked how many cues I would need and I said “None, I hope”.
It was a big learn: my script was eighteen single-spaced pages, plus hundreds of musical cues. Even running lines at their fastest – which I did every day for weeks – it took 25 minutes to speak. And the first rehearsals, with Michel and his brilliant assistant director Sophie Motley, were tricky. I should have been off book before we started.
We got some very good reviews, and now there’s an English-language version of the show for anyone who wants it. It’s thrilling to perform, I grew from respecting to loving it, and I’d like to do it again. Here’s hoping.