In another sign that nature is healing vis-à-vis London’s theatres, the Royal Court has finally reopened its smaller Upstairs venue – admittedly only because the big Downstairs one flooded – for ‘The Song Project’, the sort of slightly quixotic undertaking that you really don’t get anywhere else.
In short, it’s a long-gestating collaboration between five female playwrights – EV Crowe, Sabrina Mahfouz, Somalia Nonyé Seaton, Stef Smith and Debris Stevenson – and the London-born Dutch singer and performer Wende, with them supplying the lyrics and her composing and performing. She’s backed up by a three-piece band and various Royal Court creative personnel including co-conceiver and set-designer Chloe Lamford, choreographer Imogen Knight, and composer Isabelle Waller-Bridge.
By far the easiest way of looking at it is as a gig. And viewed as simply as that, it’s great: Wende is a magnetic presence with a vocal style somewhere between chanson and the blues; the music here is intricate but visceral: sonorous strings, layered piano textures and disarmingly heavy floor drums, woven hypnotically together, performed on a series of antiquey instruments. The theatrical elements are worn lightly, but effectively: a fern-strewn performance area, dynamic, room-traversing movement that looks spontaneous but is, of course, nothing of the sort; some lovely business with the windows. Basically Wende is a great performer, here juiced up by the power of theatre and the fact most of us haven’t been to a gig in 18 months – it wouldn’t take a lot to blow our minds, and she easily delivers.
But as this is The Theatre I feel I should engage with ‘The Song Project’ as a project, and I’ll admit to finding it quite difficult to meaningfully grasp. We’re given very little context or information about the songs: Wende says almost nothing about the process or her collaborators, and while the names of songs and their lyricists are available, part of me wonders what I’m meant to do with the information. The nature of songcraft is such that Wende feels by far the dominant personality, who has surely done vastly more work here than any of her collaborators. Some of the lyrics do stick in the mind, and distinct personalities do emerge – I warmed the most to EV Crowe’s pithily self-deprecating turn of phrase on ‘Lonely Bitch’ and ‘Mother Fucker’ – but on a single listen, and without framing context, it’s really all about Wende, and how she has chosen to interpret the words.
Basically, there are aspects of ‘The Song Project’ that are probably only really meaningful if you were actively involved in creating ‘The Song Project’. But it’s maybe overthinking things to worry about this: it’s a great gig, and if you get anything else from it it’s bonus.