Image: Leeds Grand Theatre
Benjamin Britten’s production of Peter Grimes is an epic tragedy set against the backdrop of a seaside town, playing at Leeds Grand Theatre until October 26.
The opera is based on the poem Borough by George Crabbe and portrays the downfall of a bolshy fisher- man within a judgemental community. In this way, Britten uses the operatic space to express his anxieties about 20th century society. Extreme religious ardour, for example, is presented as the product of irrational mob mentality. In the same way, Grimes’ unjust reprobation from the townspeople is born out of social solidarity.
For instance, there is insufficient evidence for the accusations against Grimes (played by Jeffrey Lloyd Roberts), with regards to the death of John. However, the wrath of the masses is such that Grimes is forced to flee for fear of imprisonment. Reason gives way to passion in Britten’s production and so disputes the legitimacy of 20th century justice systems. The main character’s tragic flaw is his embodiment of Britten’s anger in the face of a flawed society.
These issues are underpinned by the leitmotif of the opera: the currents of the sea. The appearance of order is exposed as a mirage, with chance and chaos as the only real constants. Grimes’ own livelihood as a fisherman is dependent on the sea, which is an appropriate metaphor for the precariousness of his fate.
The composition of spaces is also largely influenced by the movements of the sea. The last scene is particularly hypnotic, owing to the swaying of the cast and the accompanying haunting music, composed according to seaside sounds. The references to the sea also allowed Britten to integrate elements of himself and his past within his work. He is quoted as saying “it has more of me, of the sea, of Suffolk, of the worry of 20th century life, than perhaps anything I’ve ever done.”
Suffice to say that Peter Grimes is a deeply harrowing representation of the common man, in keeping with Britten’s usual style.