“★★★★½ “Definitive performances prove madness can be catching . . . The best was saved until last. When Peter Maxwell Davies’ Eight Songs for a Mad King burst upon an unsuspecting world in 1969, it created quite a furore. In 2016, the year of his passing, we can look back on the work and glimpse amidst the crash, bang and wallop the first seeds of the great stage composer that he would become. Australian poet Randolph Stow’s text is closely based on the words on King George III, recorded during his bouts of ‘madness’, now believed to be attributable to acute attacks of intermittent porphyria. Even at a distance of 45 years, it’s a bold, dangerous and painful piece – especially for anyone familiar with the workings of the unhinged mind – and thanks to Simon Lobelson’s truly remarkable interpretation (one of the finest pieces of musical theatre acting I’ve seen this year) it was brought to life in all its daring and, perhaps surprising, subtlety.
Director Kate Gaul’s sensitive, bare stage approach (gone were the birdcaged instrumentalists of the original conception) paid dividends. Lobelson’s bewigged monarch descended from on high, to enter a ‘cell’ ringed by the ensemble of six. A gibbering, raving, piteous creature in gown and breeches, he switched effortlessly from rage to despair. With his haunted face half made up, his voice swung miraculously from a thing of shreds and patches to a resonant, raging baritone.
The score calls for five octaves and demands the widest range of extended vocal techniques. Having studied it in detail, I can assure listeners that Lobelson’s brilliantly detailed reading was as close to what Maxwell Davies demands as you could hope to hear. Chock full of squeaks, wheezes, gasps and frequent animal noises, the rasp of air over vocal chords as God is repurposed into “G-o-o-o-o-d” is enough to make singers clutch their throats and wince. Lobelson’s cast iron technique however didn’t falter, and though just occasionally he was drowned in the lower register by the enthusiastic ensemble, he gave a stellar performance of one of music theatre’s most taxing scores.
The bravura vocal performance was matched by a dramatic assumption of the role that equally impressed. Whether muttering to the flautist who hopped birdlike across the stage, addressing Lear-like a passing fly, or hearing voices in his head, Lobelson was deep inside every moment. The mad tormented minuet that precedes the fourth song (To be sung on the Water) saw him at his most compelling, the whispered plea “deliver me from my people, they are within” was a guttural moment of chilling vulnerability. Another coup is Maxwell Davies instruction that the King snatch the leader’s violin and smash it to pieces in a moment of surprisingly alarming violence. A clever switch saw a bemused Andrew Haveron bereft of what one presumes was not his priceless 1757 Guadagnini! Lobelson’s exit, his voice fading almost interminably into the bowels of the Con, had a charnel whiff of Bedlam about it. Again, Lynch held it all together with aplomb, ensuring Lobelson of the best chance to pull off his vocal miracles, while the multi-instrument-wielding sextet gave a masterclass in technical wizardry. Quite stunning.”