Virtually from the outset of his career as a literary iconoclast, David Herbert Lawrence swam against the prevailing current of popular approval. From Sons and Lovers to Lady Chatterley’s Lover, his daring, liberated fiction gathered dust on countless publishers’ desks, essentially unprintable in the morally claustrophobic atmosphere of Edwardian England.
His quest to find a direct route to happiness via unrepressed sensuality ultimately grew out of his earliest childhood experiences. Born in 1885, his father an illiterate coal miner, his mother a disillusioned schoolteacher from a faded genteel family, Lawrence, sensitive and physically frail, sought escape from his hard scrabble Essex upbringing in an inner world of his own creation. Books were a refuge, his mother both nurse and nurturer, ally and provocateur.
“We loved each other,” the author would later recall, “almost with a husband and wife love, as well as filial and maternal. We knew each other by instinct.”
It took the better part of two decades spent living in the glare of controversy, his finger forever on the pulse of human behaviour, before Lawrence finally re-encountered himself in the guise of another imagined mother’s son.
Published in 1926, The Rocking Horse Winner, an eerie short story of alienation, greed and sacrifice stamped with distinct autobiographical cues, essentially brought down the curtain on Lawrence’s active professional life. Four years later, ravaged by tuberculosis, withered and skeletal, he died. A few friends buried him, “very simply like a bird”, wrote his wife Frieda.
Channeling the abiding echo of D.H. Lawrence’s timeless voice, seasoned indie originator, Tapestry Opera, partnered by Scottish Opera, bursts onto the world premiere scene with a thrilling unique musical setting of Rocking Horse Winner, haunted, harrowing and redemptive. Adapted by Hamilton-based playwright/performer Anna Chatterton, scored by Edinburgh composer Gareth Williams, the original one-act co-commission sets the Berkeley Street Theatre stage ablaze, radiant in the depth of its insight and understanding, spine-tingling in its execution.
Lawrence’s telling of the tale informs the nexus of Chatterton’s crisp, resonant libretto with one significant point of departure. Whereas the classic story pivots around a troubled little boy, Rocking Horse Winner, The Opera, reimagines the character as a lonely young man profoundly challenged by a severe personality disorder. All signs point to a form of autism.
A neglected upper middle class home. Ava, Paul’s mother, has surrendered to hard times. Her husband has miserably failed as a provider. Their house, shabby and threadbare, is far from the showpiece she yearns for. He has no luck, she explains to her son. “Don’t worry,” Paul chirps. “I’m lucky, you see.” And indeed he is. Riding his rocking horse, driven into a frenzied trance, the troubled man-child has somehow acquired the power to forecast winners at all the top-ranked thoroughbred tracks. Sly Uncle Oscar and Bassett, Paul’s caregiver, soon discover the secret. A string of hefty payouts yields thick wads of cash for all of them, including Ava who, her son insists, must never know of his role in the scheme. “This isn’t enough,” Ava quietly insists, waving a handful of bills at Oscar. “There must be more money,” whispers The House. Day after day, Paul rides his rocking horse long into the night in desperate pursuit of yet another guaranteed first place pick. The Derby is about to be run, the richest race of the season. Finally, feverish and exhausted, he has a name. “It’s Malabar! I know!” Race day dawns. Paul has fallen gravely ill. Bassett and Uncle Oscar have risked everything. Malabar has won. Paul has made them all rich. Still The House whispers. “There must be more.” Delirious, scarcely conscious, Paul climbs back aboard his rocking horse, lurches forward in the saddle and dies alone in the darkness.
Raising the dramatic stakes, rendering Paul’s condition with great compassion and meticulous attention to psychological detail, Chatterton profoundly intensifies the story’s implicit air of impending peril. Lawrence’s protagonist becomes the eternal innocent freeze-framed in a state of perpetual naïveté. Thoughtful and guileless, helpless and confused, Paul’s agonizing inability to silence the malicious House is made doubly tragic by his mother’s relentless descent into paralyzing depression.
Rocking Horse Winner surges forward. The sense of co-dependency between Ava and son is palpable. Push away. Draw nearer. Push away. Love. Hate. A vast empty space divides them. No number of shiny new purchases can bridge it. Feelings are permanently locked away. “Nothing is as it should be.”
Starkly staged in a minimalist double tiered space, Paul’s world of pernicious obsession played out above, Ava’s realm of skewed priorities below, director Michael Hidetoshi Mori extracts maximum impact from his first-rate cast, every movement and gesture splendidly articulated. Nothing is withheld. Action is distilled into spare intense expression.
Set designer Camellia Koo and lighting designer Michelle Ramsay work their own brand of special magic, further heightening the production’s theatricality. Gauzy curtains and wistful projections form windows on walls, cast shadows where the demons of adulthood hide. A world of gothic fantasy is evoked, a time and place that is simultaneously there and not there, imagined and real.
Just as The House whispers to Paul, composer Gareth Williams’ subtle understated score murmurs more than it declaims. Tonal and harmonious, endlessly bittersweet, this is music of disarming beauty, the sound of heartbreak. Themes verge on transparency. Ava’s tune, “When I was young”, cycles through her mind, fragile and evanescent. The motif, one of several similarly affective punctuation marks, tugs at the emotions.
Music director Jordan de Souza, covertly conducting from an ersatz stage left wing, leads an exquisite piano quintet with gentle, polished assurance. Prominently positioned upstage, Lawrence’s “great black piano appassionato” so touchingly referenced in his poem of remembrance, Piano, provides resonance, literal and metaphoric, its voice charged with equal measures of sadness and longing.
Assuming the demanding role of Paul, tenor Asitha Tennekoon contributes a performance of immense pathos. Perplexed, demanding, vulnerable, tortured by the voices only he and we can hear, the dynamic Sri Lankan-born singer actor journeys to the centre of his character’s pain. The physical challenges confronting Tennekoon are formidable, yet somehow, miraculously, he manages to conquer both violent rocking horse and vicious arioso, not once, but several times throughout the course of the evening, never straying off tempo or tune.
Appearing as Paul’s mother, soprano Carla Huhtanen commands the stage, superbly centred and focused, her finely nuanced instrument tinted with sorrow, sharp with regret. Wrapped in her thoughts, nerves on edge, Ava tears at her soul. “How does that child crawl into my thoughts so? He is always with me, even when he’s not.” Huhtanen invests the aria, one of very few in this compact 60-minute piece, with enormous ferocity and poignancy.
Tenor Keith Klassen is Uncle Oscar, all slick voice and snappy suits. A reluctant force of decency, the heedless hustler, more caring than he chooses to admit, occupies the opera’s tricky moral middle ground. Part go-getter, part guru, Oscar is charm personified. Klassen hits all the right notes, manipulative, accepting, even genuinely affectionate at times.
Baritone Peter McGillivray is Bassett, rough hewn, rock steady, his rustic-inflected recits betraying a character bound by class, plainspoken, fundamentally honest despite a singularly insatiable appetite for making a quick buck.
Sean Clark, Aaron Durand, Erica Iris and Elaina Moreau voice The House, a gripping ghostly chorus.
Five years in development, Rocking Horse Winner shows no sign of falling victim to extended collaborative fatigue. This production quite simply thunders across the finish line, deeply moving, eloquent, powerful, with spirit and energy to spare. Rocking Horse Winner is a runaway hit.