Iain Burnside has long been known as a wonderful song pianist and innovative programmer. He is a highly creative artist with wide-ranging interests whose latest projects are in the theatre, combining song, poetry and movement in music-dramas which defy traditional categorisation. In Iain’s words, ‘it’s a kind of play, it’s kind of a piece of music theatre. It’s definitely not an opera and it’s definitely not a concert’.
His hugely successful A Soldier and a Maker celebrated the life and work of Ivor Gurney and was performed in the Barbican Pit as well as at the Cheltenham Festival. Now, Iain’s latest creation is Journeying Boys. This play will receive three performances this week between 8 and 10 November at Milton Court Theatre as part of the Barbican Centre’s Britten celebrations.
Those who are lucky enough to have seen the single performance of Journeying Boys in its first version in February are aware just how exciting this work is, but the project nearly suffered a premature death. Iain recalls, ‘Nicholas Sears [Head of Vocal Studies, Royal College of Music] asked me to devise a piece for the College to mark Britten year, based on Les Illuminations. The idea was horrifying at first—even impossible!—but I came round to it. Maybe there was something in Britten, Rimbaud and Verlaine which would suit a musical-dramatic treatment. I spoke to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama [where Iain is Research Associate] as well as to Nick. When pointed out that it might have to be rather edgy, Nick said, perhaps recklessly, “Bring it on!”, and Journeying Boys was duly scheduled for performance the following February.’
Iain has now reworked the play, adapting it for the beautiful, jewel-like, new Milton Court Theatre. But fear not, it is still fun, exhilarating and occasionally dangerous. To say more would be to spoil a first viewing! The cast and crew have also been expanded to unite the music, drama and technical theatre departments of GSMD: Iain worked with a cast of 15 at RCM with multiple roles; he now has 27 on stage, including two recent acting graduates.
‘I really want to push the boundaries of what music students can do. We’ve got singers and pianists here sharing a platform with two wonderful young professional actors. The whole play becomes a crucible for different forms of talent.’
After Journeying Boys, Iain will turn his attention again to A Soldier and a Maker, which has now been commissioned as a radio play by Radio 3 as part of the BBC’s World War One season. He will also continue to perform Shining Armour, a smaller-scale theatre piece which looks at Brahms’ Die schöne Magelone from the composer’s and Clara Schumann’s perspective.
Meanwhile, Iain and his creative team are living and breathing Britten and Rimbaud.