This review was written for Animations Online
Abstract and atmospheric, Philip Glass’ ‘Satyagraha’ has been revived by the English National Opera in collaboration with Improbable for six performances at the London Coliseum. Featuring giant puppets and a swirling score, the opera covers Gandhi’s early years in South Africa – a crucial but under reported period in the young lawyer’s life when he first developed the idea of satyagraha, which translates as ‘truth force’.
An opera about non-violence sung in ancient Sanskrit without surtitles may sound challenging but this gentle, epic work is worth any effort. Through powerful music, strong visuals and a brilliant, silent ‘skills ensemble’ of manipulators, it effectively expresses its ideas about people power in a way that doesn’t require you to follow the text. It’s a non-linear piece, jumping back and forth in space and time. The circling narrative mirrors Glass’ circling, repetitive score. The overall effect is hypnotic and suitably meditative.
Newspaper is a key material in the production, just as a weekly newspaper called ‘Indian Opinion’ was crucial in spreading the word about satyagraha to the movement Gandhi inspired. Sheets of newspaper act as screens to be projected onto, while rolls of the stuff form huge streamers that projections can flow down. It is balled up into a heaving seething mass and untangled to form large textural human and animal shapes. Cellotape is an important material on stage too, proving surprisingly versatile and interesting, as both structure and puppet.
The set is made from sheets of corrugated metal that’s rusted to a deep golden hue. Windows and doors are lifted out of it to reveal the icons that inspired Gandhi and, later, huge papier mache puppet gods. Other puppets include some giant fat cat like figures, which tower over the tiny human Gandhi and are operated single-handedly and not entirely gracefully by people on stilts. A short episode featuring a five person strong crocodile made from large baskets is impressive. The puppets may be big but they are made from simple, down to earth materials.
‘Satyagraha’ is a piece where, appropriately, the chorus is king. Sometimes gentle, other times blasting, their hypnotic chants swirl around Glass’ music. Huge words and inspiring phrases are projected onto the set, like typographic scenery. This opera feels like a myth in the making, packed with ritual and symbolism, and is an entrancing joy to both the eyes and ears.