'Rocking Horse Winner' based on D. H. Lawrence's short story
A Tapestry Opera Production in association with Crow's Theatre
Credit: Dahlia Katz. Pictured: Asitha Tennekoon as Paul
"A haunting one-hour operatic treatment of the dangers of avarice and greed. D. H. Lawrence’s short story speaks with emotional clarity."
Tapestry Opera’s ‘Rocking Horse Winner’ surprised everyone at the 2017 Dora Mavor Moore Awards by winning five of the nine categories for which it was nominated. The story deals with the dangers when greed and avarice overtake our lives.
‘Winner’ was to have returned in 2020, but we all know what happened then.
The message behind Tapestry’s production of Lawrence’s story speaks to the twenty-first-century audience with emotional clarity.
The opening line of the show: “Nothing is as it should be” becomes that solid reminder that something just does not appear right in this house.
We meet Ava (Lucia Cesaroni), a widowed mother and her son, Paul (Asitha Tennekoon), who are struggling in the father's absence. Paul can hear quiet murmurings of voices within the house. Midori Marsh, Alex Hetherington, Anika Venkatesh, and Korin Thomas-Smith creepily heighten the tension by uttering: “There must be more money.” Paul begins to listen to these voices and then enlists the rocking horse to tell him the names of the winners of the live horse races. Great success occurs with the first bet; however, as the story continues and the bets grow, each one comes at a significant personal cost to those within the house.
Jawon Kang’s set design nicely establishes the family's social status. It is a two-level set with a curved staircase on the right. There is a strong impression of the grandiosity of the house; nevertheless, there is also a dreaded sense it’s lifeless. The house is merely a building with rooms and objects. There’s old furniture.
On the upper level, there are three ornate windows. This is Paul’s bedroom. The rocking horse can also be seen in the room. Yet, there’s also a sense the room appears to be suffocating, thanks to the choice of dark colours. Some of the furniture set pieces are updated thanks to the financial winnings of the horse races. There are bottles of champagne when the money starts rolling in.
Ming Wong’s costumes also help establish the family’s social status. At the top of the show, the clothing worn by Ava and Paul is not flashy at all. Paul wears white boxer shorts, while Ava is dressed in a drab fashion. They change clothing when the horse race winnings come into the house. Ava is dressed sharply in a tight-fitting green evening gown with a jewelled necklace. Paul’s clothes begin to look a tad sportier.
Echo Zhou’s lighting designs sharply reflect the growing tension within the house. There are moments when the shadowy effects combined with the whispering voices made me feel goosebumps. Very nice work here.
Michael Hidetoshi Mori directs the production with assured confidence. He builds tension methodically. Even though I know the story's ending, Mori still manages to disarm me momentarily when the frightening reality of the final moment sinks in. Kamna Gupta’s musical direction gorgeously captures the heavenly harmonies and melodies of the music. The five-piece orchestra never overpowers the artists. Thankfully, sur-titles are projected stage left in case one did not hear all the lyrics.
Composer Gareth Williams has created some extraordinary-sounding harmonies and melodies that are most pleasing to the ear. Anna Chatterton’s libretto captures the characters’ thoughts and dialogue succinctly and briefly.
The remarkable eight-member ensemble is the reason to see the production. They are fully committed to telling the story with clarity and dignity while not shying away from the harsh realities of how greed can and will destroy the human soul.
Peter McGillivray and Keith Klassen become terrifying reminders of what greed can do to the human soul. As respective house servant, Bassett and Uncle Oscar, they now ‘provide’ a male influence in young Paul’s life. However, they do not provide that positive guidance. Instead, the two men greedily do whatever they can to ensure they receive a piece of the horse race winnings. At one point, as young Paul rides the horse in his room to determine the winner of the Derby, the young boy becomes overcome with great angst. The looks on Klassen and McGillivray’s faces are terrifying to watch momentarily. Their Oscar and Bassett hold no concern for the young boy at all. Frightening but effective.
Watching Lucia Cesaroni’s change as Ava becomes a horrifying reminder of the horror of what greed can do to a human. At the top of the show, her Ava appears tragically despondent, given her current situation as a single parent. But when the money comes in, Ava sadly allows the superficial luxuries of life to cover up the sadness at the expense of her tormented child.
Asitha Tennekoon delivers a truly fascinating performance as ‘man-child’ Paul, who aptly reflects this label when the audience first sees him. He wears white striped boxer shorts, socks, and a white long-sleeved shirt. There are moments when Asitha’s work reminded me of Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Children Will Listen’ from ‘Into the Woods’. Tennekoon listens carefully to the other actors and responds appropriately.
At times, his Paul shows signs of being a savant, especially when he announces the winning names of the horses. As a retired teacher who worked with young people from the ages of 10-18, Paul also exhibits signs of being autistic. Initially, I would have thought Paul to be a savant, but now I lean more towards him being autistic. Tennekoom’s Paul becomes a tragic, lonely individual on the verge of manhood. The outside adult influence selfishly takes financial advantage and gains from Paul instead of providing guidance and help through this sometimes-confusing array of internal emotional upheaval.
Final Comments: D. H. Lawrence's short story still holds pertinent meaning in the 21st century about the value of money and how it can threaten to destroy personal lives if mishandled.
Tapestry Opera’s production is dark, but is it ever an important story to experience.
‘Rocking Horse Winner’ runs to November 12. Go and see it.
Running Time: approximately one hour with no intermission.
‘Rocking Horse Winner’ runs to November 12 in the Guloien Theatre at Crow’s Theatre, 345 Carlaw Avenue, Toronto. For tickets, visit crowstheatre.com or call the Box Office (647) 341-7390 ex. 1010.
A Tapestry Opera Production in association with Crow’s Theatre.
‘Rocking Horse Winner’ based on the short story by D. H. Lawrence
Composer: Gareth Williams
Librettist: Anna Chatterton
Director: Michael Hidetoshi Mori
Music Director: Kamna Gupta
Assistant Director: 郝邦宇 Steven Hao
Costume Designer: Ming Wong
Lighting Designer: Echo Zhou 周芷會
Set Designer: Jawon Kang
Stage Manager: Myra A. Malley
The Cast: Asitha Tennekoon, Lucia Cesaroni, Peter McGillivray, Keith Klassen, Midori Marsh, Alex Hetherington, Anika Venkatesh, Korin Thomas-Smith
Musicians: Aysei Taghi-Zada, Tanya Charle Ivenluk, Brenna McLane, Sybil Shanahan, Stéphane Mayer