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Clorinda Agonistes

Tasso, Monteverdi, Al-Abiwardi and Kareem Roustom

Shobana Jeyasingh Dance

The Lowry, Salford

October 18-19, 2022, 60min

Clorinda Agonistes (Clorinda the Warrior) Photo - © Foteini Christofilopoulou
Jemima Brown as Clorinda and Jonathan Goddard as Tancredi in Clorinda Agonistes All pics: Foteini Christofilopoulou

Monteverdi modernised seems to be an In Thing at present. Just days after Opera North unveiled their “Monteverdi Re-imagined” version of L’Orfeo in Leeds, Shobana Jeyasingh brought her new Clorinda the Warrior to the North with two nights at The Lowry.

It’s a fusion of Monteverdi’s 1624 cantata, Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, sung on-stage by tenor Ed Lyon, and new music for the original text (plus a 1,000-year-old poem by the poet Al-Abiwardi) by Kareem Roustom, combined with Shobana Jeyasingh’s choreography and video projection by Nick Hillel/Yeast Culture.

A multi-genre concept, then, but definitely Jeyasingh’s, and essentially a dance work… plus.

The story of Il Combattimento is of a Crusader knight who loves a Saracen woman but who fails to realise that his opponent on the battlefield is his beloved Clorinda, her face concealed. He duels to the death with her, only then realising what he has done.

In the first part of the show, the Monteverdi is sung (accompanied by string ensemble and harpsichordist Robert Hollingworth) and virtuosically danced by Jemima Brown and Jonathan Goddard, with Lyon also figuring in the action, so effectively there are three moving performers on the stage.

It’s straightforward, story-telling dance and, though there are just a few translated phrases from the Italian text displayed in English on the surfaces of Merle Hensel’s set, what’s happening is clear enough. This is a tour de force of physical movement in itself, with gasps and groans (so much so that there were warnings on the doors as you went in that simulated killing was to be represented), and powerful stuff.

In the second part, Clorinda becomes four women dancers (two with head coverings, two without) as the theme is reinterpreted for the present day. The projections show scenes of urban destruction, and Lyon takes on the role of documentary film maker, with Goddard his cameraman. Roustom’s music sets lines from the Tasso poem – now sung in Arabic – giving them new meaning, as well as new accompaniment from the musicians, and includes the recorded voice of Syrian mezzo-soprano Dima Orsho, who also sings Al-Abiwardi’s poem about the Crusader sack of Jerusalem.

It's about the Middle East today, but also about any place where women remain defiant in the face of merciless destruction and oppression. Movement from the duel in the first part is reproduced, particularly towards the end of the work, to rub in the point that Clorinda’s courage and refusal to surrender are the heritage of today’s sufferers – “empowering her… to be her true self”, as Roustom puts it.

The three dancers who joined the tireless Jemima Brown as the new Clorinda (Emily Thompson-Smith, Harriet Waghorn and Ellen Yilma) were equally brilliant and alive, and the whole performance – just an hour, with no break, but packing in enough energy to fill a whole evening – searingly moving. “Agonistes” (Milton’s term for the Jewish hero Samson, heroic in captivity and self-sacrifice) means striving and struggling, and the message, in repeated imagery of individuals struck down but others arising to take their place, is clear.


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