Gaddafi: The Opera

Is Asian Dub Foundation‘s Gaddafi musical a symptom of arts funding‘s creeping malaise?

  • Gaddafi: The Opera

    Look! It's Feerdy from 'This Life', dressed as Michael Jackson!

  • There is a wonderful Private Eye cartoon from the 1980s in which a bohemian painter is stood in front of a bespectacled Arts Council bureaucrat. ‘Can I have some more money to finish my art?’ requests the artist. At the front of the frame is his piece of art: it is a portrait of the selfsame Arts Council bureaucrat with the unfinished legend ‘FUCKING ARSEH…’ scrawled underneath.

    The cartoon sums up several strange paradoxes in the world of state arts funding – how artists bite the hand that feeds them, how authorities have an endless ability to absorb rebellion, how revolutionary anger can be commodified and packaged by government authorities…

    All these issues spring to mind when watching Asian Dub Foundation’s collaboration with the English National Opera, ‘Gaddafi: A Living Myth’. The production certainly works as a spectacle – it starts with the Libyan resistance leader Omar Al-Mukhtar being hanged by the neck by Italian troops and elevated into the gods; it features fantastic back projections, live camera feeds, breakdancing soldiers, blood-splattered canvases, and Gaddafi’s military platoon of hot babes in combat fatigues kung-fuing around the stage. There are just two problems with the show. One is the music; the other is the words.

    Asian Dub Foundation have two songs – a fast, punky one that sounds like ‘Naxalite’ and a half-speed dubby one that sounds like ‘1000 Mirrors’, and both are repeated ad nauseum here. Strain your ears and, beneath the ten-year-old drum ’n’ bass loops, you might just make out some proggy orchestral embellishments from a Middle Eastern chamber band and a 36-piece ENO orchestra, who might as well be sampled. None of the libretto is set to melodies – instead Ramon Tikaram’s Gaddafi barks out arrhythmic doggerel with a faintly ridiculous aristocratic accent, while the military ‘chorus’ answers him by shouting out declamatory slogans.

    The story jumps around a century of Libyan history – Italian invasions, King Idris’s puppet kingdom, the discovery of oil, Gaddafi’s military coup in 1969, his curious mixture of progressive politics and brutal dictatorship, the sponsorship of international terrorism, the US bombings of Tripoli in 1986 . But librettist Shan Khan never shows us these things happen; instead we are told about every event in didactic, Ladybird book form. The only attempts at artistic interpretation come in a dire comic-book portrayal of Ronald Reagan, who is played for laughs as Gaddafi’s moral equivalent. Any attempts to draw parallels between Libya and Iraq fall flat – if anything, Gaddafi’s capitulation to US bombings and sanctions, and his renouncing of terrorism, could be seen as justification for maintaining a hawkish ‘war on terror’.

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