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Death and superstition in The Wasp Factory

Ambient, discordant music and the macabre source material from recently deceased author Iain Banks makes for a compelling piece of contemporary opera in Ben Frost's "The Wasp Factory".

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Photo by Yann Wingard

The Wasp Factory, Ben Frost’s directorial debut, is an affecting and polarizing experience. The marriage of Frost’s dark ambient stylings and discordant strings with Iain Banks’ horrifying tale of a murderous teenager makes for a captivating and unsettling opera.

Never registered with the authorities, Frank Cauldhame lives on an island with his father. “I do not exist,” croon the three wonderful female performers (Lieselot de Wilde, Jördis Richter and Mariam Wallentin) who take us into Frank’s macabre world. At only 16 years old he already has three murders under his belt.

Clad in rags, the three beings – are they all Frank? Are they aspects of Frank? Does it matter? – emerge from a mud-pit, and, as the pit tilts into a wall, they flit and hang and crawl. There is no naturalism on this stage. Mirella Weingarten’s set is simple and clever, ultimately evoking the titular ‘factory’, an old clock into which Frank feeds wasps, a different death waiting behind every numeral. Which death will the wasp choose, and what does this mean for the future?

Some of the most beautiful musical moments come during Frank’s descriptions of murder. Australian born, Iceland-based Frost allows glimpses of glorious harmony as we soar into Frank’s imagination, experiencing his ecstasy at building a kite big enough to pull a small girl out to sea, or putting a venomous snake in the hollow of a prosthetic limb. These are arguably more effective than the sections that assault the ears with aggressive soundscapes and dissonant strings – props to the quintet from the Rejkavik Symphony for a sterling job – but those do remind you that you are in the mind of a madman.

It’s a shame the score isn’t a bit more accessible, because the action on the stage does not tell the story. No acts of violence or macabre rituals appear: but through listening carefully to David Pountney’s fine libretto (and occasionally keeping half an eye on the German subtitles) the events can be pieced together. The Wasp Factory is a gruesome descent into ritual, madness and death with some transcendent moments – and running less than an hour and a half, at least there’s time for that drink afterwards.

THE WASP FACTORY | September 29 at 20:00