How Handel's Messiah was brought to life by Nick Drake’s All the Angels

The play, which charts creation of the classic piece, premieres in Ireland this week

Nick Drake’s All the Angels premiered at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in London in 2015 and now comes to Smock Alley Theatre. Photograph: Patrick Redmond

Nick Drake’s All the Angels premiered at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in London in 2015 and now comes to Smock Alley Theatre. Photograph: Patrick Redmond

 

Writer Nick Drake has recently returned from Cop26, where his latest work, The Farewell Glacier, was performed. Based on the poetry collection he wrote after a journey around the Svalbard archipelago in 2010, the fusion of text and music (by composers Emma Donald and Isbel Pendlebury), explored a history of exploitation of the Arctic landscape that goes back as far as the 16th century, and continues in the present day, with catastrophic consequences for our climate.

Drake, who works across literary mediums – he has written screenplays, librettos and many plays – says it was “a life-changing trip”, but he is not surprised that the climate debate has not moved on in the intervening years. “It is crazy we are even still using words like climate change or climate emergency,” he says. “What we are talking about is pollution and it is a huge structural problem, to do with capitalism and the world economy. The challenge is not an individual one: it’s to persuade governments whose entire financial wealth depends on the economy of fossil fuels to change.”

Drake is speaking to me from his book-lined office overlooking Hackney Downs, a vast green space in greater London, where the Hertfordshire-born writer has lived for most of his adult life. We are scheduled to talk about his 2015 play All the Angels, which receives a festive Irish premiere this week courtesy of Rough Magic Theatre Company. The play, which charts the creation of George Frideric Handel’s famous Christmas oratorio, The Messiah, is partly set in Dublin, where the work premiered in 1742. Drake admits he had the idea to write something about the Messiah “for a very long time. I used to go to see it with friends every year before Christmas. It was a celebratory thing. Sometimes the music hit me and sometimes it didn’t, but there were certain arias that really did, and I always wondered why.”

‘Personal disaster’

When he realised an old university lecturer had written a book about Handel, he read it “and the whole world of the Messiah, this most famous piece of choral music, opened up for me. I was struck by how this incredible piece came out of this massive personal disaster.”

At the time Handel started writing The Messiah, Drake expands, the composer had just “suffered a massive financial and artistic failure at the opera in London. Basically, it looked like his career was over.” Depressed and sick after the failure of his 1741 composition Deidamia, he had vowed to abandon the genre, but after an invitation to Dublin, Handel began composing again. 

As Drake explains, being invited to Dublin was a bit like colonial exile for the composer. “There was absolutely a prejudice about Dublin, being out of range for London and a prejudice that Dublin had no musical or cultural life, although there were many counters to this. There were a string of Irish actors who moved to London and had enormous success and Handel knew that there were places in Dublin where his music would be performed, and talent that could perform the work.” With the premiere of The Messiah, for example, Dublin-based singers performed all the main parts. 

All the Angels charts the creation of George Frideric Handel’s famous Christmas oratorio, The Messiah
All the Angels charts the creation of George Frideric Handel’s famous Christmas oratorio, The Messiah

Handel struggled, however, to find a singer who could perform the contralto part. Eventually, he found an actress called Susannah Cibber, whose personal circumstances chimed uncannily with his own. Cibber had also been exiled to Dublin after “a terrifying scandal, where her husband, Theophilus Cibber – a total monster – took all her money, sold her jewels and gowns, and tried to sell her as a lover to pay off his debts. Susannah and Mr Sloper actually fell in love, and her husband sued her in the courts for an astonishing amount of money. He deliberately humiliated her, and trashed her reputation.” Out of this “complex messy situation”, Drake explains, she was determined to take her career back with her own hands. When she was invited to Dublin by an Irish actor-manager, she saw it as an opportunity to restart her career. 

Cibber, however, was not a singer, and was terrified of doing The Messiah – “this was basically a woman with a scandalous reputation performing in a sacred work”. But Handel took it on to teach her what she needed technically and she brought her experience as an actor, “singing from a place of deep emotion, and it really moved people. People were used to hearing technically proficient singers, but Susannah brought to it an emotional truth, and she went on to have enormous success and redeem everything.” Eventually, she even reunited with Sloper. 

From this backstage drama Drake was determined to write a play, “but it was a terrifying prospect. There are an infinite number of books about Handel and I am not a musicologist.” Still, he says, “I knew what I was looking for in all of that material. I knew what I needed to help me tell the story I had in mind, which is not a story about musicology, but a story of redemption, a story about putting on a show, a story about the idea that comfort can come out of great sorrow and suffering. I mean it is there from the very first lines [of The Messiah]: ‘Comfort ye, Comfort ye’.” 

Breakthrough

The breakthrough came when Drake discovered threads of a story about Crazy Crow, a preacher and musician porter who was working in Dublin at the time The Messiah premiered. “Hardly anything is known about him,” Drake says, “but I came across this etching of him, carrying all the instruments, and that became the catalyst for the play. The Messiah is about beauty, the performance of art, and I found in him someone who didn’t believe in any of that, whose class experience was very different from everyone else involved, and that opposition was my liberation. It allowed all the bad feelings to come through – he says ‘we can’t afford sweet airs and redemptions and tickets’ – but in the end, he has his own anguish and pain that might also be consoled by the music.”

Although Drake is fluent in many different literary forms – poetry, prose, film – “I wanted those characters to be real, on the stage, in front of us.” He had experience using music in his work; “I actually wanted to be a composer when I was young,” he admits, and has recently worked on two operas and a choral piece. However, just as The Messiah is not an opera – it eschews dramatic form in favour of musical meditation – Drake felt a play with music would be a more authentic form for the story. All the Angels premiered at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in London in 2015. “It was the perfect venue,” Drake remembers. “It is candlelit, the space is made of wood. It was as close to the Fishamble Street Music Hall [where The Messiah premiered in 1743] as you could get.”  

Perhaps not as close, though, as Smock Alley Theatre, where the play will receive its Irish premiere this week. Smock Alley, situated just around the corner from Fishamble Street, is the only existent theatre from this period in Dublin, although not much but a brick wall survives from the original structure. Still, Drake says, “that wall will hold every bit of Susannah’s voice and presence in it. It is a kind of resonance you won’t get anywhere else”.

All the Angels runs at Smock Alley Theatre from November 20th to December 22nd

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