BURYING the Dead, presented by Ceruleo on their short tour of west-country venues as part of the current Concerts in the West season, was a new play by Clare Norburn with music by the late 17th century English composer Henry Purcell. The author describes Burying the Dead as a concert-play and imagines Purcell on his deathbed in 1695 recounting events in his busy, but all too-short life.
His career as a Westminster Abbey chorister and later as an organist there gave rise to well-loved anthems and canticle settings. But Purcell’s greatest output was in the realm of music for the theatre, writing songs and instrumental music.
It is known that he had a fairly tempestuous relationship with Frances, his wife, and that four of their six children died in infancy. Purcell’s enormous output for the London theatre gives us insight into his relationship with his favourite singers. Among these was a very young and pretty singer by the name of Letitia Cross.
Purcell also lived in a period of great change and uncertainty. During the reign of King Charles II, London experienced a terrible outbreak of the plague followed shortly after by the Great Fire. The reign of James II saw what proved to be his disastrous flirtation with Roman Catholicism and Parliament inviting the Dutch William and English Mary to accede to the throne in 1688.
In Burying the Dead, all of these personal and civic tragedies were constructed into the concert-play with Clare Norburn’s script cleverly interlacing Purcell’s own music for instruments and voices. At one point, the flirtatious Letitia Cross spontaneously utters the opening words of the song I Attempt From Love’s Sickness to Purcell: How did you know that they are the words of the song I’ve just written? At which point Letitia Cross sings the Indian Queen song to Purcell in a manner suggestive of a fairly erotic relationship between the singer and the composer.
The role of Letitia was played by the soprano, Jenni Harper, a singer with a fine voice and masses of acting ability. She was well complemented by Emily Owen whose finale song, Dido’s When I Am Laid in Earth, was sung with a moving intensity that left a profound silence in the audience as Purcell lay dying. Emily Owen also played Purcell’s long-suffering wife, Frances, jealous of what she considered her husband’s over-attention to Letitia Cross.
Niall Ashdown’s role as the dying Henry Purcell required a range of emotions: the excited schoolboy, the devastated father, the tempestuous preacher, the amorous suitor, the nostalgic and the comic. As a recent replacement for another actor, Ashdown was excellent in playing to audiences in close and intimate proximity and occasionally injecting well-judged humour.
The instrumental group of Satoko Doi-Luck (harpsichord), Kate Conway (viol) and Toby Carr (theorbo and baroque guitar) provided accompaniments and the occasional instrumental piece. Their skills and knowledge of performing Purcell’s music were self-evident and all played with commendable attention to balance with the singers and each other.
Everyone was dressed in effective and practical period costume and the use of props showed how effective simple additions can be: brown paper bags being crunched and periodic handclap ‘cracks’ can conjure up a 1666 Great Fire.
With stage direction by Simone Ibbett-Brown and Clare Norburn’s clever mix of fact and conjecture, Burying the Dead should continue to live as an engaging contribution for audiences and as a piece of theatre that Henry Purcell would approve of.