WHAT SOPHIE HUNTER – AKA MRS. CUMBERBATCH – DID LAST WEEK
The Times –Art
4 August 2015
One image in particular sticks in my mind from this year’s Enniskillen International Beckett Festival: an opera singer delivering Britten’s version of Racine’s Phaedra from the top of a white dress that fell 15 20 feet to the bare earth of a riding centre below the ruins of Necarne Castle, a few miles out of Enniskillen.
Ruby Philogene was the mezzo who stood high above the Ulster Orchestra and brought anguish, rage, grief, poignancy, an unsettling joy and then a strange calmness to the often feverish, sometimes poignantly quiet cantata that Britten wrote in 1975, when he, like Phaedra, was approaching death.
As she sang, her undeniably elegant dress, apparently made of a soluble variety of celluloid, began to auto-destruct — its rents reflecting the mind of a woman who, having taken poison after confessing her love for her stepson, was in the last, minutes of her life.
Her director, the brains behind this towering (in every sense) and moving (both emotionally and literally — Philogene rotated very silly on an invisible plinth) performance, was Sophie Hunter.
“She’s revolving, she’s hallucinating, she’s bombarded with a turbulence of memories and visions, an isolated figure who makes you feel the heat and fire and lust and boiling veins. and then a burning cold as poison courses through those veins and her flesh turns to ice,”– said Hunter, when we met after the performance.
“And there’s and ecstatic euphoria as she finishes surveying the landscape of her life,” added Andrew Staples, the music director and Hunter’s collaborator on a past production of Britten’s the Rape of Lucretia and an impending one of his Turn of the Screw. “Suddenly you see the generosity of someone about to die. They’re saying don’t worry, don’t worry. It’s uplifting and it’s reflected in the music.”
Staples is a distinguished tenor and Hunter is, as any newspaper reader should know, the wife of the Barbican’s new Hamlet, Benedict Cumberbatch, with whom she recently had a son. The relationship is, like everything else personal, “off limits” to any interviewer, as she gently makes clear. As her Phaedra definitively proves, however, Hunter is far more than Mrs Cumberbatch.
Born in London and granddaughter to General Sir Michael James Gow (Aide-de-Camp General to the Queen during the early 198os), Hunter is an Oxford graduate, a student of the avant-garde performer Jacques Lecoq, a sometime actress (she and her husband have actually appeared together on screen, in the 2009 thriller Burlesque Fairytales) and singer — she released an album of French-language songs in 2005 entitled Isis Project, written with Robbie Williams’s former collaborator, Guy Chambers. It is as a director, however, —focusing largely on opera and classical music — that she is becoming increasingly acclaimed and has won a Samuel Beckett award for her imaginative work.
She was, she says, exhilarated by the almost Shakespearean complexity and density of a Phaedra that crams emotions galore into 15 minutes and equally excited by the prospect of staging it in an equestrian school. The feel and even smell of the place put her in mind of Hippolytus, the abused stepson depicted in Greek tragedy who loved horses and was dragged to his death when they panicked.
“I felt this could be our most ambitious project yet,” said Hunter. “We wanted to take a classic or a contemporary piece, move it out of the traditional concert hall, explore what experience could be built from it, and push the boundaries a bit.” Seven months after starting work on Phaedra, she’s still finding new feelings, new touches of light and shade, in a piece she finds “transcendent as well as challenging — it never lets the audience off the hook”.
Next up is The Turn of the Screw, with the Aurora ensemble and an excellent cast that includes Staples, the soprano Sophie Bevan and mezzo Ann Murray, and which will form the centrepiece to Aldeburgh Music’s annual Britten weekend, Supernatural in Suffolk. In Northern Ireland, Hunter and Staples have been especially gratified by the crowds making their way to Necarne for Phaedra —“we’ve been having conversations with 16-year-olds who would never normally have anything to do with Beckett and were moved by this” — and hope soon to take the show to Paris. And after that, maybe to show it elsewhere or even make it available on film. It deserves a future life.
If the headline had said
“What Sophie Hunter did last week”
90% of the UK population would have been scratching their heads wondering who the hell she was… Tag her with Benedict
(like the media do all the time since November 14)
CLICKERTY CLICK BAIT.
In the Times…I hope they realize that they are inviting the wrath of most of London’s real opera community? If you thought The Guardian was bad, just wait. I can imagine the comments already. Why they insist on going on with this sycophantic freak show is beyond me. If you even doubted that SH is a delusional narcissist here’s your proof. I don’t think BC is happy about this, in her attempt to become a celebrity SH is making him look like a complete tool.