In a messed up world where white nationalists publicly fly swastikas in America and busts of Stalin are appearing across Russia then Kneehigh’s typically challenging production of Gunter Grass’ The Tin Drum is particularly timely.
For this joint production with Liverpool Everyman and West Yorkshire Playhouse it made sense for Kneehigh to turn to their long associate composer Charles Hazlewood for a musical landscape that adds power to the Nobel laureate’s demolition job on the ideologies of hate that still has a genuine menace.
“The Tin Drum is about the rise of fascism and the unanimous rejection of that world by a young boy Oscar who decides at the age of three that he rejects the word around him entirely,” says Charles.
“So magically he throws himself down a flight of stars thereby causing his body to freeze at the age of three, even though he continues to mature emotionally and spiritually, he is imprisoned in the body of a child. It’s a very peculiar and interesting premise for a piece of magic realism.”
The Oscar winning film adaptation of The Tin Drum is a classic of seventies European cinema - with a memorable score by Maurice Jarre - although Hazlewood thinks the director missed a trick with a key element of Oscar’s character.
“If you’ve seen the film there is a fundamental problem there for me which is when you read the original book he has two weapons of choice. One is his drum, and the other is the fact he has the magical power of screaming in such a way he can shatter all glass within a five mile radius.
“In the film all you hear when he plays his drum is this miserable noise of child bashing like a biscuit tin which is grim, unrelenting, unimaginative and a totally non-creative sound. What you read the book you actually hear in your mind’s ear symphonies, break beats, dirty funk, choirs and all manner of amazing music his drum can set off.
“The thrill for me has been creating a different sort of a world where when Oscar plays his drums he sets off the most amazing music, or at times devilish music if he is enraged.
“So there is a fascist rally he interrupts as they dance to a fascist hymn, but his drumming completely screws them up so that hymn becomes a piece of wild break beat and that all the fascists can do is dance to it. The drum becomes an instrument of magic not just of childish brutality.”
Hazlewood is not just a clever composer, but he understands that the instrument he uses are central to delivering his artistic vision so he turned to keyboards from the golden age of electronica for inspiration.
“I’ve gone back to beautiful old analogue Moog synthesisers - and other old school synthesisers - which is the orchestra at the heart of this piece and drum pads as well, “notes Hazlewood. “A drum pad might be a block of rubber, but it is connected to a midi system, so again it can be anything you want to be. It can be a brass choir, it can be steel pans or a choir of angels.
“Those pads take subtle little taps and turn them into a whole universe of sound and different kinds of colours and palates.”
Dictators throughout history have always understood the power of stirring music to bend people to their will and twisted ideologies, but for Hazlewood music can also be an immense power for good too.
“For me music is totally unique and most universal language we have a species. You can play a tune to a child in Beijing, and the same tune to a child in Cape Town, and despite the enormous differences in background and culture between those two children they will draw lots of the same truths from that melody.
“Of course, music has the power to transform lives to make life worse or to make it better. It can lift ourselves or drive people down the route of particularly mad, insane obsession like fascism.”
The composer’s long standing relationship with Kneehigh gives him the freedom to meld may different styles adding mood and texture to what is happening on stage. This time Hazlewood was keen to make sure the cast were able to add their own voices to the narrative and the insanity erupting around them.
“We very carefully cast the company for this piece, and they all extraordinary singers, so there is a lot of choral music, and quite androgynous singing as a number of the actors have wide ranges from deep baritone to high sopranos.”
“If you know my work you know I’m nothing if not electric. My day job is conducting orchestras so I’m passionate about everything from Bach to Mozart to Brahms, but I’m also passionate about the Grateful Dead, Kraftwerk, Radiohead so all of these different colours have a bearing on the multi layered score I’ve created.
Gunter Grass was a former Waffen SS solider who used his personal experience of fighting for a totalitarian regime to shine a light on how previously decent people can get sucked into collective madness and mindless hatred.
“We’ve deliberately have not placed our piece in a particular time or space although, of course, we are only too aware of the tsunami of the right wing that seems to be growing apace across Europe, the USA and elsewhere in the world.
“We are very aware of how prescient it is and there are moment when it feels very, very contemporary where you might have an insane piece of drum and bass playing out, but it is mixed and mediated though choral acapella moments, barque counterpoint so there is whole mix of things. It certainly feels contemporary, feels resonant and feels very fuc]ing loud.”
The Tin Drum is at West Yorkshire Playhouse until Saturday 28th October. To book go to www.wyp.org.uk or 0113 2137700