80! - The Booklet of the Russell Hoban Some-Poasyum

The Second Mrs Kong - review

The Second Mrs Kong, Royal Festival Hall, London, Tuesday 9 November 2004

Full list of performers:

Kong (The Idea of Him) John Daszak
Pearl Rebecca von Lipinski
Anubis/Death of Kong Stephen Richardson
Vermeer Roderick Williams
Mirror Claire Booth
Mirror Echo Amy Freston
Inanna (Mrs Dollarama) Susan Bickley
Mr Dollarama Robert Poulton
Swami Zumzum Andrew Forbes-Lane
Orpheus Andrew Watts
Madame Lena Nuala Willis
Eurydice Lucy Crowe
The Dead Apollo Voices
Director Kenneth Richardson
Sound Sound Intermedia
Conductor Martyn Brabbins
BBC Symphony Orchestra

I went and it was wonderful. The RFH did a really good job in ‘semi-staging’ the opera. The singers were dressed to fit their parts, and there was a screen above the orchestra on which scenes from King Kong, pictures of the Girl with the Pearl Earring and a very Hobanesque computer screen were shown. There were also surtitles throughout, which were very useful, as the libretto is as crucial as the music.

I thought the performances were universally strong, with John Daszak as Kong particularly affecting, and Nuala Willis as Madame Lena getting the best laughs. Anyone who listens to the radio broadcast will probably find her words easiest to pick up.

I didn’t see the original production, so I came to this with little prior knowledge, although I had seen Birtwistle’s Gawain a couple of times, and know some of his other music. It is a wonderful mix of elements. The opening, with the lone presence of Anubis and the orchestra playing in the lowest register with wind and brass prominent, is like the appearance of Charon in Act Three of Monteverdi’s Orfeo, and Orpheus himself, as a countertenor, must have been a reference to Gluck’s Orfeo. But Anubis also reminded me of Charon in Aristophanes’ Frogs, especially when he was dealing with argumentative passengers being forced to row. Some his words reminded me of the opening of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon in Tony Harrison’s translation, for which Birtwistle did the music.

Later scenes, at a customs post on the edge of the world of the living (plenty of wordplay on the word ‘custom’) and afterwards, reminded me of Brecht/Weill (Mahagonny in particular). But the dialogue — including what Pearl and Kong write to each other on the computer (which will be invisible on the radio) — was pure RH: very clever and very moving at the same time.

Extracts of the libretto can be found at www.ocelotfactory.com/hoban/mrskong.html and copies are available from Universal Edition at £4.95 (telephone 020-7437 5203 in the UK). [See also the "further reading" link below for more content on this site.]

All in all a memorable evening, made even more so because I got to meet Russ for the first time in the interval. It was a great privilege and a pleasure, tongue-tied though I think I was. At the end of the concert Harrison Birtwistle and RH went to the stage to receive a joint ovation, well deserved.

Dr Hugh Bowden is Senior Lecturer in Ancient History, Department of Classics, King’s College London

Aunty's got the chops for it

Kong, a short fellow, sits, remembering his life after reading the obituary of Fay Wray. Aunty is always there.

AUNTY “What’s the matter?”

KONG “Aunty-matter!”

AUNTY “It looks like someone’s bitten me to it.”

KONG “I never had one, only the idea of one.”

AUNTY “So how you gonna do it with Aunty?”

KONG “Do it with the idea of me.”

AUNTY “I’ve done it with big ones, small ones, but never a kein pimmel.”

KONG “Kein, klein, what’s the difference?”

AUNTY “I need something for upping the Aunty.”

KONG “A stiff idea.”

AUNTY “I think we both need a stiff one!”

KONG “Mine’s a Glenfiddich.”

AUNTY “Mine too, bottoms up.”

KONG “Up yours!” 

“Then, like a kraken huge and black, She crushed our ribs in her iron grasp” - Longfellow, The Cumberland 

Tim Haillay, 7 November 2004 


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