Unknown, Remembered… review – a baffling and curiously disengaged installation

Spitalfields festival, London
A soprano’s Handel cantata is interrupted by Joy Division, turntablism and artist Haroon Mirza’s take on a Beckett play – in this elusive multimedia piece

Given its world premiere by Spitalfields music festival, Unknown, Remembered … is a big, site-specific multimedia piece about trauma and loss. Part music theatre, part installation, it occupies two rooms in Studio 9294, east London’s new arts centre in Hackney Wick. In the first, soprano Katherine Manley performs Handel’s cantata La Lucrezia, railing in despair against the man who raped her, before contemplating suicide. After we move, partway through, to room two, actor Richard Strange gives us The Last Tape, artist Haroon Mirza’s reimagining of Beckett, which follows the dramaturgy of Krapp’s Last Tape, but replaces the original text with words by Joy Division singer Ian Curtis, who took his own life in 1980.

The rooms are linked by Mirza’s images of turntables, radios and strobes flickering on TVs and screens, and by an electronic score – sometimes brutal, sometimes beautiful – by composer and turntablist Shiva Feshareki. As the evening progresses, the two worlds interpenetrate. Strange is heard interrupting Handel’s cantata. Manley subsequently arrives in room two to stand before him in silent accusation as he spools his tapes. Is he her attacker? We’re never told, but later she gazes down on him as he sleeps and sings Feshareki’s settings of Curtis’s lyrics for Joy Division’s album Unknown Pleasures.

The end result is baffling, elusive and curiously disengaged for a work that tackles such powerful subject matter. There’s a nebulous quality to Feshareki’s score, which never really draws cantata and installation together, while Marco Štorman’s promenade staging lacks focus. The move from one room to another impedes what dramatic momentum there is, and I was left wondering whether a straightforward theatrical presentation would have served the piece better.

The performances, however, are strong. Manley sings with fierce intensity, and there are superb instrumental contributions from Liam Byrne (viola da gamba) and Marianna Henriksson (keyboards). But this is an evening in which the individual elements never cohere into a satisfactory whole, and as such is something of a disappointment.

Contributor

Tim Ashley

The GuardianTramp

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