The Last Siren review: a tour de force by Lauren Kinsella
The vocalist subtly and powerfully sustains both her difficult character and the audience's attention
Venue: Project Arts Centre
Date Reviewed: October 15th, 2016
Ian Wilson’s experimental opera The Last Siren imagines the last surviving example of the mythological being, beautiful but dangerous, whose irresistible singing lured sailors to their deaths by shipwreck upon the nearby rocks. Not so this last one: her musical powers are diminished, as are her faculties. In her total isolation she grieves for her dead sister and is depressed, anxious and unhinged. She drinks. Her only companion is a toy (aptly, a wooden horse), with which she has a pseudo-relationship reminiscent of that between Tom Hanks and the volleyball Wilson in Cast Away.
The performance is a tour de force by vocalist Lauren Kinsella. Over her 60-minute monologue she subtly and powerfully sustains both her difficult character and the attention of the audience – this within a structured but almost entirely improvised presentation and by someone whose career is otherwise devoted not to acting but to composing and to singing jazz (she was 2016’s vocalist of the year at the Jazz FM awards). She looks like a siren, albeit a broken one, and allows tantalising glimpses of her former lethal powers with the occasional fragments she sings.
The music, also, is improvised, performed by the Cork-based sound art duo The Quiet Club (Mick O’Shea and Danny McCarthy). Seated at desks on opposite sides of the stage, the two unfussily generate and amplify a wide and engaging spectrum of live and electronic sounds from various home-made and modified instruments. Most of the sounds consist of abstract yet cannily feasible responses to what’s unfolding dramatically in the space between the two players, although a few moments call for something recognisable, such as an epic thunderstorm they raise while still scarcely moving.
Wilson, who devised the concept and the libretto, encourages the audience – through this lonely last siren – to reflect on memories, on loss and suffering, on endurance and courage, and on how nothing stays the same forever, not even in mythology. The actual details of those subjects, upon which the last siren ruminates for an hour, have already started fading as the performance ends. The libretto is not one of the piece’s strongest features, and represents a bit of a lost opportunity. What sticks in the mind is how the powerful concept behind the libretto inspires such engaging and spontaneous performances.