Salt Song at Hyde Park Cinema
Ben Fincher (@BenCVTW) reviews Salt Song, Hyde Park Picture House, Sept 5th …
As omnipresent and supranational as the oceans themselves, the sea permeates every cultural medium. What is it about the sea which people find so evocative? Does it tie people together, or separate them?
Imperceptible from around the corner of the Hyde Park Picture House, where Salt Song was performed, the locally iconic cinema instantly immersed me in the seaside atmosphere I remember from the trips to the coast in my youth. Little portions of fish and chips were given out; a magician performed an illusion for me that I still cannot comprehend; an effusive fortune-teller it was impossible not to grin at delighted the crowd; there was a sandpit with buckets and spades; musicians played shanties and pier-end standards like ‘Oh I Do Like to be Beside the Seaside’; and perhaps the fortuitous contribution of a sunny day with a warm breeze, these elements very quickly made me forget that I was standing on a street corner in Leeds, miles from the sea.
As I and the rest of the audience took to our seats, the sight and sound of the tide lapping against the shore on the screen, I contemplated Blackpool, Scarborough, Brighton, Whitby, the bite of the salt in the sea breeze, candy floss and kitschy arcades. I was ready to remember. Then the performance started.
Merging live music, projected imagery of the sea and coastal towns, spoken and sung poetry and a touch of dance, the format of Salt Song was fresh and engaging. By having normally quite distinct and demarcated forms of performance come together, the show was an experience quite dissimilar from anything else I had seen, a sort of ‘concept gig’ where each element contributed toward a narrative but also a feeling, an emotional state. The multi-format presentation was an exciting way to portray some of these, and I’d love to see more work which combines forms of performance like Salt Song did. The problem is in balance, and getting these elements to each contribute their fair share.
Sharply contrasting with the joyous interactive pavement scene, the first parts of the show are melancholic, lovelorn poetry about a couple separated by the ocean – too soon for such material in my opinion. Instead of showing different facets of the space the sea occupies in human consciousness, it just left me feeling a bit glum. That’s not to say that that Rommi Smith’s poetry wasn’t good, or that I could write anything better. There were in fact some very beautiful and moving passages. I just felt that the emotional rollercoaster had taken an unexpected vertical drop.
The overarching plot of Salt Song is of a swimmer seeking to forget the traumatic separation from her partner, in parts told through the lens of a chorus of mermaids who discover a discarded letter in the wind. The combination of spoken and sung poetry works very well, and the librettists’ vocal talents are indisputable, but I can’t help but feel that using something as emotive and symbolically multifaceted as the ocean through a love story was an easy option. Being stonehearted and cynical, I don’t find stories about peoples’ romantic lives very moving, so maybe I’m missing the point.
Dave Kane’s compositions work beautifully as a component of Salt Song, and I would argue is the strongest element in the show. Though the band was small, the score showed great depth and was always engaging. Having an ‘orchestral indie’ vibe, in parts it reminded me of The Decembrists, particularly the cacophonous degeneration of Oh I Do Like to be Beside the Seaside. Other parts were reminiscent of DeVotchKa. Led predominantly by cello and double bass, it suited the poetic and visual imagery in the show well, and the musicians absolutely had the talent to do it justice.
The visual aspect of the show, shot in Anglesey, Leeds, Scarborough and Sicily, varied in quality, being at its best towards the end in the sequences I strongly suspect were shot in Sicily. Perhaps this trip consumed a large part of Salt Song’s budget, but I can’t picture why in earlier parts of the show a repeating slideshow of about a dozen images of Scarborough (I am sure the slideshow is a default screensaver on Apple Mac computers which draws from the computer’s ‘My Pictures’ file) was used as part of a professional production for a paying audience. There are times, too, when aging filters not unlike the sort used on Instagram are applied to clearly contemporary footage. Some of the footage is beautifully shot – a scene with foreboding shots of a grey sea floor intercut with flashes of a swimmer at sunset was of cinematic quality – and the lower quality parts let the better ones down.
Salt Song uses the canvas of the ocean to paint a picture of human emotion, which is as changeable as the tides. I could write at length about the symbolism evoked. Of course salt is a major theme and metaphor, the substance having such an extensive roster of vital uses throughout human history, from a flavouring to its use as wages (hence salary) during the days of the Roman Empire. So too does the historical sea-bound departure of men to fight in distant wars, from the Peloponnesian ship battles in the Mediterranean Sea, to the D-Day landings on the coast of France, on our own English Channel. Though far from untapped, the sea is a powerful motor of passion, both joy and anguish. Ultimately, I felt that Salt Song’s combination of sensory ingredients was an enchanting recipe that needed just a touch of seasoning.Tags: Hyde Park Picture House, leeds, Salt Song