Ritual Theatre



John Ashford

Ritual Theatre: ritual could suggest a host of things, as Barry Edwards, the group’s director is the first to admit. From magic to actors leaping all over the audience. ‘Theatre’ suggests spoken words and a text. None of this – or even ‘meaning’ – has to do with the Ritual Theatre group.

There are six performing members, three musicians and three actors. The musicians play bassoon, viola, flute and percussion, and have all come fo the group through bands (Comus, Henry Cow). The actors do not use words but sounds, with the music and physical action. The entire performance is improvised around a very loose formal structure, beginning with gourd and light percussion in darkness. This will last for perhaps twenty minutes, concentrating the attention of the audience on listening while the musicians move about exploring the acoustics and spatial dynamics of the environment. A silence follows – or rather the absence of sound. Then a long viola note builds into a lightly textured musical passage involving bassoon and flutes. Slowly the actors move according to the atmosphere created by the music, and begin to develop sounds – possibly with many repetitions, like a litany. The final section exp0lores new musical areas with bells and percussion, perhaps becoming more strongly rhythmic, while the actors attempt to unite what has happened during the performance with the audience and the music into a single image.

It’s difficult to find a label for this kind of work. Maybe it’s music theatre, maybe it’s sound poem/ performance. Barry feels that the term ‘ritual’ is right since the attempt is to re-create the spirit of ritual where everything is connected and related to some kind of survival process – a celebration of people in a space together. It may not have anything to do with a literary meaning, but according to the reaction of the audiences it has a lot to do with emotion, like pain and joy. As Lindsay Cooper, another member of the group put it, their aim is to find a kind of performance which is ‘too exact for words’.

Rehearsals produce many good ideas, but they are not formally incorporated in the performance. Eventually they might be reworked during an appropriate moment in performance – but when that happens depends on the audience, the environment, the moment.


Hamish Hamilton

Elemental themes of birth, death and resurrection – all the blossoms on the tree of human pain – are interwoven in the complex hour-long ceremonial presented this week by the Ritual Theatre. These actors and musicians, and their director, Barry Edwards, are members of an avant-garde group whose ‘controlled improvisation’ re-created nightly at the Edingurgh Festival, adds up to an astounding, an electrifying experience.

Here, as in the People Show piece about ‘Bird’ and man’s wish to fly, we have genuine evidence that urban man is finding his way back – in spite of all kinds and degrees of wounding alienation – to ancestral and still viable folk forms. The three musicians (Clive Bell on flute, Radu Malfati on trombone, William Currie on viola) construct the thematic base on which the performers – two men and one woman – act out the pain and ecstasy of multi-form sexuality, and human deprivation and need.

In response to the discordant lament of the instruments, they are inarticulate, prisoners in the human body, they have ‘no language but a cry’. Aboriginal folk motifs – ‘masterful images’ – break through half-consciously, as when one of the actors, with a contortion of head, arms and fingers, suddenly becomes the Green Man, whose grimacing satyr head, with foliage sprouting from the mouth, and with staring eyes and protruding tongue, was smuggled into the churches of mediaeval Europe as a mocking remembrance of older fertility rites. After death, there is resurrection, rebirth; the performance ends with tranquil celebration, and the performer who has shown us the Green Man ‘returns to the body where he was born’.



Merete Bates

The Ritual Theatre is the name of a group of musicians and performers directed by Barry Edwards whose exploratory work at the Crucible Theatre Sheffield has no exact precedent. It springs spontaneously from each individual, and is not directed from an external, superior power. It strives to evolve only from the inner creative nerve. And it stretches, rather than closes, or consoles.

Talking to Barry Edwards the aim behind the work grew clearer. The structure is a very simple arrangement of sounds – wood, wind, string, metal. Each sound stirs an emotional response in the performer or audience. Sound is explored as it evokes emotion. One emotional response in the group touches off another. The work starts among scattered twigs, sticks, dead leaves. Preoccupied, the group makes sounds from the wood – tapping, scraping, rustling and whipping. The lights dim, nightlights flicker. There begins a dry rattling, like sifting, falling grains, echoed like the wind through air, then its some distance away. On and on. Suddenly a flute sobs. A viola quivers in response. The cello plumbs firm and deep. Finally a voice spits, guttery sound. Hysterical chatter. A shriek. Bodies leap, gesticulate, join. Sound and bodies move together.

The performance was intended to continue for seventy minutes. But it was ruptured. Striking, whirling a huge iron triangle, the strings snapped. The triangle was hurled, narrowly missed the head of a man in the audience. Total silence. It says something for the emotional aim of the group that, with this accident, the show ended. After both had joined and even begun to play together the tension between audience and performer had been broken.



Nicolas de Jongh

Experimental theatre live, thin though the field is, lacking cultural missionaries. Here is the Ritual Theatre. Three actors and three musicians on flute, cello and viola offer something fervently abstract with a scorn for anything linear. Abstraction is the thing for some cool, improvised and seventy minutes.

The emphasis is at first aural and oral. Three actors placed about the auditorium, each with a gourd rattle, begin to use them. Close your eyes and listen to the resonance, the crescendo of sounds and the differences between each rattle. The first variation comes with the addition of sounds from the actors, high pitched whines and groans, howls and hiccoughs. When the music arrives with a discordant cello sound, it becomes a cacophony.

The second varation is balletic. The mingling and connecting of bodies is picturesque – two heads seen together: one upside down, the other upright; Hilton McRae with hands moving like a bird of prey and tongue rolling out stretched and grotesque is imprisoned by a second figure. Both Hilton McRae and John Attenborough have voices of remarkable range.



Max Loppert

Ritual – ‘a prescribed order of performing religious or other devotional service’ (Shorter Oxford Dictionary). The Ritual Theatre would not, I imagine, claim that theirs is a service, or that it is religious in any commonly held sense. Nevertheless, during their hour-long ‘rite’ last night, I sensed a ‘prescribed order’ behind their musico-dramatic happening that made it an interesting and enjoyable experience.

The stages of the ritual can, at the beginning, be quite clearly perceived: the auditorium darkened to the lighting of burners; a slow emanation of susorrous rustles and rattles from all six players (shades of the portentous mystery caused by the opening tremolo in any Bruckner symphony); then noises – animal, guttural, gradually musical – with the lights rising; improvised interplay of sounds, imitative and suggestive, between musicians and actors, until music takes over and the actors move into physical, even balletic gesture, to flesh out what had been outlined in sound. The musicians are, as improvisers, very good indeed.

In the interplay between instruments and voices, flute and violin fluttered, arabesqued and keened over cello drones or pizzicati finesse (my ear caught some very strange – and very pleasant – now-Bergian, now-Shostakovian sounds. The experience served as an hour of aural massage not to be despised a minute away from Trafalgar Square.



Steve Lake

The Ritual Theatre is an amalgam of three musicians – Clive Bell, Colin Wood and Billy Lee Currie – three experimental actors – John Attenborough, Rosalind Davies and Hilton McRae – and creator, designer, director Barry Edwards. Their concert at London’s ICA on Wednesday began in near darkness with all six group members positioned around the perimeter of the low white stage, rattling gourds and maracas, then spasmodically breaking into werewolf wailing in the best Lugosi tradition.

Bell, a founder member of Henry Cow, blew frenetic wooden flute, and Currie and Wood sawed across their principal instruments (viola and cello, respectively). Wood often playing near the bridge for all sorts of acoustic weirdnesses. As the lights rose the actors moved one by one to the stage centre and began to enact an extraordinary mime-dance-cum-group-grope, combining mannered theatrics with screams, orgasmic sighs and Neanderthal grunts – communicating physically with each other and verbally and visually with the musicians.

This performance was much more than a theatrical exercise with musical backing. The degree of integration so intense that it merited new categorisation; I suppose the fashionable term ‘music theatre’ is loosely appropriate. Although the Ritual Theatre is very much an ensemble effort, special mention must be made of Rosalind Davies, whose menacingly sensual performance, full of unstated tension, contributed to a powerful, primeval experience.



Naseem Khan


The space is quite dark, when the performers one by one – quietly – enter. There’s a pause, then two of light flickering oil lamps. And slowly the musicians begin, one at a time. Notes and phrases, on strings, flutes, the occasional brass and a male voice used like an instrument. It all seems random and unrelated at first, but slowly creates a shifting exploring pattern. After a time three actors join in, in order to extend the sound, via abstract movement, into a visual dimension.

‘The whole thing’ says Barry Edwards, director of Ritual Theatre gently, ‘is about awareness and a very sensitive type of relating to one another.’ Each show develops entirely by improvisation – it depends on the decisions of a performer and his/her response to each specific moment.

When they first started, said Barry, they tended to pack in too much, and what they expressed through sound/movement was just ‘very broad emotions’. They had, he said, to work hard to do nothing. But ‘we’re gradually painting finer and finer’.

Anyone familiar with Zen will recognize the aim and the exercise: an attempt to isolate, appreciate and live in the essence of a single moment, and to see in a clear-eyed way all its possibilities. It needs a shared concentration among both audience and performers that is not easy to come by. ‘The audience is vitally important to the group all the time’ says Barry vigorously. ‘It’s all for them’. And that illustrates their view of ritual. The emphasis is on experience common to everyone there. The emotional stages that the things go through are I think universal. It’s not a question of going to an audience with something like a message or a plot. It’s based on the experience of music, which has incredible power.’

‘I suppose you could call it ritual too, because you find that sort of fusion, that sort of experience, more in non-print cultures. There, sound had much more power – like trumpets destroying Jericho. We’ve still got the facilities for that sort of appreciation. It’s just that we’re not using them so much.’