Brighton Festival May 11th – 14th 2018
A personal account by stage manager Sophie Rashbrook
Last Monday at 9am, I emerged, blinking, into the sunlight, alongside 75 other people, in the middle of a wood. Dressed in white aprons and black trousers, we resembled a large cohort of hotel staff who had got spectacularly lost on their return home from a night shift. Except this was exactly where we were supposed to be. We looked on wordlessly, as 50 bleary-eyed guests filed past, smiling at us, some wiping away tears. The crowd came to a stop in the clearing, and five solo voices enveloped them, passed through them, and halted time itself, spinning a golden web of arpeggios into the treetops. The voices fell silent, and there was only birdsong and the hush of the leaves. Then, slowly, but surely, came applause. Elation. Exhaustion. And, a little later, some much-deserved Buck’s Fizz.
This was the culmination of the surreal and glorious experience that was The Arms of Sleep. Rewind one week, and Firle Place was a stately home basking in its usual splendour. Set in 7000 acres of exquisitely tended lawns, herb gardens, and bafflingly suicidal lambs, it is a venue more used to hosting lavish weddings and afternoon tea than avant-garde musical experiences, but its Riding School – a beautiful timber-roofed hall – and grounds became the portal into a musical world of dreams, for audience and performers alike.
Billed as ‘a 23rd-century Vespers’, The Arms of Sleep was programmed as part of the Brighton Festival. It sold out instantly online, at the members’-only stage of booking. Co-commissioned by the Norwich Festival, this overnight 10-hour choral installation was the production of award-winning, Norwich-based organisation The Voice Project, conducted by Director Sian Croose, with original music by co-Director and composer Jonathan Baker, as well as Helen Chadwick and Orlando Gough.
It is hard to overstate the energy and dedication that went into making this hugely ambitious project a reality. In a matter of days, the tireless production team assembled 50 specially-constructed beds into a maze-like formation in the hall. Alex, the Production Manager, and Iain, Voice Project Co-ordinator, made multiple trips to Brighton laundrettes to deliver fresh bedding every night. Alex was also regularly to be found spraying kimonos with vodka; a fantastic life hack if you hate the smell of Febreeze, but need an inexpensive and pleasingly alcoholic way of freshening up garments kept in storage. Meanwhile, lighting designer Tim Tracey spent a vast amount of time dangling from the top of a ladder, ensuring that Sal Pittman’s exquisite projections found their mark, and that, come nightfall, the grounds were bathed in magical light. For the first few days of rehearsals, choir members arrived in cars laden down with foliage from their gardens. They spent hours festooning the changing rooms with branches, and lent lamps, rugs and sheets for the dressing of the space.
In many ways, the choir was the star of this event. Voluntarily giving their time, and paying a contribution to take part, they commuted from Brighton at all hours of the night, and, in some cases, even joined us from as far afield as Norwich. They performed outdoors, in all weathers (although in reality, we were blessed with a very warm and dry week), rehearsed with great professionalism, and gave their warm-up such gusto, that on occasion, I had to take cover from their exuberant arm movements. Musically, the quality was outstanding. Coming from a background in professional opera-making, I was astonished and moved to see what was possible with a non-auditioned community choir: musicality of great depth, and the mastering of complex rhythms and harmonies, thanks in large part to Sian and Jonathan’s musical leadership. The result, with a simple but effective staging, was an achievement on an operatic scale.
The choir’s performances happened in two slots every night: 9-11.30pm and 6-9am, with some members staying up all night, in order to see the soloists’ musical event at 2.30am. As you can imagine, sleep deprivation started to take its toll. ‘Has anyone seen my glasses/apron/umbrella?’ was a familiar refrain; while one morning, someone in a moment of confusion filled the water urn with tea or coffee grounds (and no, no one ever owned up to it…) On the penultimate morning at 6am, the chirpiness overflowed into mild hysteria, with a spontaneous and deranged chorus of ‘Good morning, good morning to you!’ as the choir assembled, but invariably, all this nervous energy dispelled in the calmness of the morning air. In the moments of ‘down time’ in the church, while the choir waited for the audience to be led to their beds, or to return from breakfast, I’m certain that among that crowd of architects, editors, bankers, choreographers and artists, friendships were made which will last for years.
On the final morning, the gentlemen decided to stand in line and listen to the ladies’ chorus, rather than return to the church. They performed ‘Some nights’; a moving a cappella serenade to dreamless sleep, sung in an avenue of cherry trees. By this point, fatigue had stripped away any remnants of emotional resilience, and this simple gesture of appreciation, set within the overwhelming beauty of Firle Place, reduced many of the women to tears. Yet when it came to that final chorus in the herb garden on the last morning, it seemed that tiredness, along with the shadows, had dissipated altogether. There was only music and light.
For anyone pondering whether to do something as mad as this in future, I urge you to try it, either as an audience member, or a choir participant. It may have taken a week for my sleep patterns to return to normal, but the memories, and the sense of magic, will stay with you forever. I’m sure their next project, Timepiece, happening tonight, will be unmissable.
Congratulations to Sian and Jonathan, and all the Voice Project team, for such a fantastic project. Thank you to the wonderful choir and artists who let me be a part of it. It was an honour to have been there with you all.
Sophie Rashbrook was choir stage manager for The Arms of Sleep.