Whale drama at the right pitch

Whale song, the rush of waves and the buzz of a 1960s pirate radio station define the live-music drama, Dumbstruck, which opens at Cork’s Half Moon Theatre on Tuesday. Produced by Bristol-based Fine Chisel, the show, which combines narrative and live music, won the Fringe First Award at last year’s Edinburgh Festival.

Whale drama at the right pitch

It’s about a scientist alone on an island off the coast of Alaska. He is losing his ability to speak. He reflects on his extraordinary life and chases ‘the loneliest whale in the world’, the real-life so-called 52 Hertz whale, whose pitch is unique.

Cork musician and performer Carolyn Goodwin is a guest member of Fine Chisel. “The company devises theatre,” Goodwin explains. “Each of the five of us has different specialities in music, writing, choreography and song-writing. It’s a kind of melting pot in which we also dabble in each other’s areas. I play bass clarinet and saxophone for this piece.

“There are lots of harmonies in the show. The music is folk-inspired. I guess we could double up as a band. All the songs that we wrote for the show are songs that stand alone in their own right.”

Goodwin says that Fine Chisel does not make musicals, but “theatre with music”, which is very different from musical theatre.

“The songs reflect what’s going on and the music underscores scene changes. We take little motifs out of the various songs and use them to create the atmosphere in the scenes. Also, we use our instruments to create sound effects. For example, percussion can be made to sound like rain.”

Goodwin, who studied music at the CIT Cork School of Music and has played in orchestras and jazz bands, says the magic of Dumbstruck is that audiences can see the sound-effects being made.

“In this age, where we have the technology to do everything, there’s something quite refreshing about the simplicity and the cleverness of using something in a very acoustic way. It’s really effective.”

There is a paradox at the heart of Dumbstruck. “The scientist is suffering from slow loss of memory and speech, while the whale is trying to communicate. In a funny sort of way, the scientist ends up trying to reach out to the whale and communicate to him. The play has a flashback sequence, where the scientist, who lectured at a college in the 1960s, becomes involved in helping a student to set up a pirate radio station, using his knowledge of sound frequencies and radio waves.

“During that time in England — and Ireland, too — radio stations playing rock’n’roll music were very limited, which gave rise to pirate stations. What’s great about that is that it allows us to bring rock’n’roll into the play. It has a lot of early rock’n’roll and folk music. In some ways, being at the play is a bit like being at a live gig.”

Fine Chisel will also present its show, Midnight at the Boar’s Head, in the Cork Opera House’s Green Room on June 13-14. The company describes it as a Shakespearean knees-up that presents a cross-section of scenes from his plays. The Boar’s Head, in London’s Cheapside, was Shakespeare’s favourite watering hole. Audience members become part of the drama in the bar, via live music and a party atmosphere.

Dumbstruck, the Half Moon Theatre, Cork, Tuesday to Saturday

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