The Spirit of Keats

4 Oct

Great idea. Keats poetry set to music, threaded through with ghostly story.

The first drama was how my friend Tess could avoid the rustling of a bag of Haribos during the performance. We didn’t think they’d appreciate this added sound effect. She solved the problem by emptying the sweets into her handbag. (I hope she found all of them. Few things worse at the bottom of a handbag than old sticky sweets; perhaps bruised pears and spare toddler’s pants that fly out in a meeting when trying to find a pen – but that might just be me.)

If you know anything about poetry or remember it from school, Keats is almost certainly in the running order, so this came at it from a fresh angle.

The singing was impassioned, the piano beautiful but the story left me a little cold.

Soprano Vivien Munday sung her way through the Keats’ hits: La Belle Dame Sans Merci, Ode to a Nightingale, Bright Star, Adoration; and threw in some by Shakespeare, Byron, Langdon Elwyn Mitchell, Auden and von Eichendorff to music by Stanford, Poulenc, Parry, Strauss and more.

Pianist Paul Turner performed moving solo pieces of Britten, Brahms and Chopin among others.

When it came to the final narration and the piano joined the words, I realised I wanted a little more of that. Not to get into silent movie territory, but to allow the spoken story to borrow some of that musical colour; piano and narration working together throughout as it did with Vivien’s song.

The story – read by William Kettle and running a thread throughout the performance – was set in 2007 when the writer, Peter Kettle, visited Rome’s Spanish Steps and the Keats-Shelley Memorial House. Peter’s description of Rome of the modern day and then the time slip into 19th century, made a good fist of putting us in the moment. However when Keats’ apparition appeared he came only to have a chat and then fade again. Less Turn of the Screw and more Casper the friendly ghost. I like my spooky scenes with more bite, chill, not to leave me cold; to echo Keats’ final words: ‘Don’t breathe on me…it feels like ice.’

But perhaps Tess should have the last word from the car journey home, ‘It was so moving, I almost cried’.


The Spirit of Keats was at Swindon Arts Centre, 2 October 2016, as part of Poetry Swindon Festival.

Chronicle written by Louisa Davison.

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