Monday, 29 July 2019

Review: Mémoires d’un Amnésique (Amusia Productions, GM Fringe)

Saturday 27th July 2019
International Anthony Burgess Foundation, Manchester

This year’s Greater Manchester Fringe continues until the end of July, and I’m reviewing a selection of shows (as you probably know) for this blog and for North Manchester FM. The next show I saw was Amusia’s Mémoires d’un Amnésique, which was on at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation on Saturday 27th July. You can hear my radio interview on Tuesday’s show on North Manchester, but here’s the blog version…


Subtitled ‘A Reflection on the Life and Work of Erik Satie’, Mémoires d’un Amnésique is part piano recital, part film, and part narration taken from Satie’s own writings. I was very much looking forward to this show, as I really love Satie’s piano music, and I was interested to see how this staging would enhance the musical performance. I’d had a bit of a taster of how the staging would work before the festival started, as I interviewed performer Alex Metcalfe for my Hannah’s Bookshelf Greater Manchester Fringe Special at the end of June. As a result of this conversation, I had high expectations for the show.

As the audience enter for the show, pianist Metcalfe is already at the piano (as Satie). Dressed in a formal suit and bowler hat, he plays a short refrain, then walks slowly to a blackboard and chalks a tally mark. Then he silently returns to the piano and begins the refrain again. The piece he’s playing is Satie’s Vexations, which consists of 152 notes played 840 times in succession. When we arrived in the performance space, the tally count was at around 350.

Mémoires d’un Amnésique – which takes its title from a volume of Satie’s own writing – uses the composer’s own words to ‘narrate’ (in an eccentric and occasionally surreal way) his story. Script editor Sarah Miles has carefully selected and arranged a selection of Satie’s words (which are voiced, in French, by Bastien Mouzay), as well as a couple of examples of correspondence and academic reports of Satie’s studentship at the Conservatoire, to create a particular path through the life and work of the reclusive composter.

Satie was an eccentric, an avant-garde artist, and an absinthe-consuming member of Paris’s Chat Noir set. It is fitting that Mémoires d’un Amnésique uses surrealist and fragmentary techniques to illustrate both Satie’s life and his work (and the two are presented as utterly inseparable here). Miles’s script does this through its selection and juxtaposition of material, as does Keith Lovegrove’s film.

Lovegrove’s film (of which Miles’s script is part) offers a montage of black-and-white sequences to accompany and illustrate the music being played on stage. On the surface, there is haphazard randomness to the imagery we’re watching – and certain stereotypically surrealist objects, particularly fish, recur as a nod to the surrealist and Dadaist movements with which Satie was associated. Metcalfe appears as Satie in the film, repeatedly walking along a pebbled beach, bouncing sedately on a trampoline, and dealing with the ubiquitous fish. There is some sense of progression through the imagery, but this is not chronological or linear construction. (But for those who feel the need for a little linearity, a brief timeline of Satie’s life and writing is including in the show’s programme.)

However, for all the ostensibly bizarre and capricious feel to the cinematography and editing, there is a stylish and intelligent construction to Mémoires d’un Amnésique that ultimately offers a fascinating commentary on Satie’s work (and approach to work). It’s not a lecture or an exposition, but rather a direction of our focus to enhance our appreciation of the music.

By framing the show with Vexations – including Metcalfe’s measured and repetitive marking of the tally – Amusia subtly signal a preoccupation with measurement, metrics and time. Repetitions of the piece’s 152 notes recur at points in the performance, serving almost as moments of pause in the ‘narrative’. In a quoted section of Satie’s writing, he comments that a musician’s first task is to acquire a metronome, and, indeed, the device features heavily in some of the filmed sequences. Ideas and images of marking, measuring and repeating offer the artistic link between music, narration and film.


What I really enjoyed, though, was the way this deliberate repetition and measurement isn’t being used to reveal a deep or unconscious meaning, but rather becomes an absurdist meaning in itself. As with the later Theatre of the Absurd movement, Satie’s music (and life) is situated as an exploration of the existentialism of illogicality. This was a bit of a revelation for me… I love Satie’s music, and I also love Theatre of the Absurd – and yet I hadn’t (consciously) realized the connection between the two.

Now, at the heart of Mémoires d’un Amnésique is Metcalfe’s piano recital. Playing a selection of Satie’s music, including his best-known pieces (Gymnopédies 1 and 2, and the Gnossiennes), for just over an hour, on stage and on screen, Metcalfe is Erik Satie.

And this was the only problem I had watching Mémoires d’un Amnésique… I had to stop myself getting lost in Metcalfe’s playing so as not to miss anything of Lovegrove’s film! (I think I’ve made it clear now that I love Satie’s music, but I should also say that I struggle to listen to the melancholic and evocative Gymnopédies and Gnossiennes without them having some serious effect on my imagination – so I really had to concentrate during Mémoires d’un Amnésique so I didn’t miss what was happening around the music, as well as in my head!)

But, that personal challenge aside, I thoroughly enjoyed Mémoires d’un Amnésique and would definitely recommend it. Classy, thoughtful and skilfully absurd, it was an atmospheric and beautifully constructed dip into the Parisian avant-garde. So good, you could almost taste the absinthe.

Mémoires d’un Amnésique was on at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation on Saturday 27th July, as part of the Greater Manchester Fringe. It will be on at the Edinburgh Fringe on the 22nd and 24th August. To see the full programme of events on this year’s Greater Manchester Fringe, see the festival website.

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