“Knife of Dawn” put Martin Carter, Guyanese history on stage at Royal Opera House

[Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.] Al Creighton (Stabroek News) reviews the new opera, The Knife of Dawn, which was performed at the Royal Opera House in London in late October. The opera—written by Tessa McWatt, composed by Hannah Kendall, and directed by Ola Ince—is about the incarceration of Guyanese poet Martin Carter who was imprisoned at Atkinson Field (Timehri) in 1953 when the British suspended the Guyana Constitution and occupied the country. [Composer Hannah Kendall was born in London of Guyanese parents and Tessa McWatt was born in Guyana.]

There was a very rare event in western theatre and an important advancement for Caribbean literature when a new opera, “The Knife of Dawn” (2016), opened at the Royal Opera House in London on October 24, 2020. It was a doubly historic occasion being the first production by a Black director performed on the main stage of the Royal Opera House, and the first time the work of a West Indian writer was composed as an opera on the West End stage in London.

“The Knife of Dawn” was composed by Hannah Kendall from a libretto provided by Tessa McWatt and directed by Ola Ince. It is about the incarceration of Guyanese poet Martin Carter who, as a PPP political activist, was imprisoned at Atkinson Field (Timehri) in 1953 when the British suspended the Guyana Constitution and occupied the country to remove the PPP government from office. The text of the opera focuses on the hunger strike carried out in protest in the prison camp and relies heavily on Carter’s poems. The performance was streamed free between October 22 and 24 this year, as the theatre’s feature for Black History Month – UK.

In presenting “The Knife of Dawn”, the Royal Opera House brought the work of Black composers and writers to its long and honoured theatre tradition. It integrated West Indian literature in a way that is rare on the mainstream stage.

“The Knife of Dawn” has been accorded an importance and dignity not always present in some productions of history, such as the satirical opera (a type of play with music) of the eighteenth century with which the Royal Opera House has historical roots and connections. West Indian plays and themes were valued for their humour and exoticism, not seen as really worthy of tragic treatment.

By featuring this production, the Royal Opera House recognised and gave greater exposure to Black British composers and directors as well as a Guyanese/Canadian writer, in addition to the life and work of a Guyanese poet, and by extension to Guyanese history.

Ola Ince was honoured as the first Black director for a production at the Royal Opera House when “The Knife of Dawn” opened there in October, 2020. A very accomplished and prolific director, she is a native of London, who has already assembled an impressive track record in theatre, film and the opera, including winning a number of awards. Of importance here is her work on power, race and injustice, which brought her close to the work of Martin Carter and the 1953 episode in Guyanese history.

Composer Hannah Kendall was born in London of Guyanese parents and is a very accomplished musician. She, too, has accumulated an impressive record of achievement as a young composer. This was recognised when she was featured and honoured on the BBC Proms, a very prestigious series of concerts broadcast in the UK.

Tessa McWatt was born in Guyana and taken to Canada when her parents moved there. Her career as a writer is decorated by a number of published novels in Canada, fortified by her work in England and the writing of the book for this opera. She is currently Professor of Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia in the UK.

The work these three women have collaborated to produce is a chamber opera for a solo baritone with two sopranos and a mezzo-soprano, alto, accompanied by violin, viola, cello and harp. It was played on a simple but striking and functional set designed by Vicki Mortimer – a bare stage with three beds on two levels against a façade suggestive of an encaged area, like a prison. There is a single performer – the baritone soloist Peter Brathwaite, who plays the young poet and political activist Carter confined in his place of imprisonment.

In a stately, controlled and very effective performance, Brathwaite sings as he moves slowly around the set that is quite precisely and appropriately highlighted by lighting which enhances the symbolism and the movement within the confined environment. The main lines sung by the soloist carry the narrative and the thoughts and mental struggles of the character (the poet). He begins alone, but is soon echoed, complemented, refuted and questioned by voices – an unseen chorus from off-stage, sung by sopranos Nia Coleman and Sarah Dacey and mezzo-soprano Beth Moxon.

The poet/activist has embarked on a hunger strike to protest his incarceration and carries on a confrontation with his jailers, who try various means to get him to end the strike, as well as with himself, as he struggles to remain resolved. By remaining unseen, Coleman, Dacey and Moxon may be Braithwaite’s own counter-thoughts testing his resolve and the wisdom of his actions. They could be messages, letters, thoughts expressed by his supporters out in the town, but they carry on a debate about the role of the poet as activist and the effect of sacrifice.

The confined activist as he moves around, encounters the occasional symbolic props such as what looks like paper boats and the fires that he lights at the end. The performance is an interrogation of the poet’s mind, of his role as activist, of the political situation in occupied British Guiana, colonialism, oppression and the pressures imposed by the British government and its agents at the time. There is much focus on the possibility of the poet dying from starvation and whether that would serve the purpose any more effectively than if he remained alive to fight the cause with effective poetry. The question is asked, ‘who does he serve if he dies?’ A tension creeps in between poetry and political activism. [. . .]

For full review, see https://www.stabroeknews.com/2021/10/31/sunday/arts-on-sunday/knife-of-dawn-put-martin-carter-guyanese-history-on-stage-at-royal-opera-house

Also see https://www.roh.org.uk/tickets-and-events/the-knife-of-dawn-details

A discussion with the cast and creative team behind The Knife of Dawn:
Insights into The Knife of Dawn
Royal Opera House, October 27, 2021
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5UN4DktbFKQ

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