The architect Nicholas Hawksmoor completed St George’s, Bloomsbury, one of his half-dozen London churches, in 1730, at a time when the transport of slaves from Africa to the New World was booming, with Britain the biggest trafficker. It was built to serve a prosperous parish, although its tower can be glimpsed in the background of Hogarth’s ‘Gin Lane’ engraving of 1751, the artist’s depiction of the low-life inhabitants of the Rookery, as the tenements of nearby St Giles were known. More recently, in 1937, the church welcomed Emperor Haile Selassie at a requiem for the dead of the Second Italo-Abyssinian war, a particularly bloody three-year conflict featuring the use of mustard gas by Mussolini’s troops on the Ethiopian army.
Slavery and, by association, colonialism are the subjects of Elaine Mitchener’s “Sweet Tooth”, which received its first London performance in the beautifully restored interior of St George’s last night. A theatre piece, specifically related to the use of slaves in the sugar industry, it makes use of Mitchener’s talents as singer, dancer and actor, as well as those of three distinguished improvisers: the violinist/accordionist Sylvia Hallett, the saxophonist Jason Yarde and the drummer Mark Sanders. All four become performers in the piece, choreographed by Dam Van Huynh and lit by Alex Johnston.
Hallett began alone, accompanying her scraped double stops with strange amplified vocal ululations. Mitchener entered, wailing and shrieking in a wordless expression of fear and anguish, writhing as if resisting the constraint of chains, joined in duets first by the yelps and barks of Yarde’s baritone saxophone and then by Sanders’s small hand drums.
The piece proceeded through six “chapters”. In one, Mitchener re-enacted an auction by reciting the names, attributes and prices of individual slaves, at one point continuing to list them while lying face-down on the stone floor of the central aisle. In another, she used the third finger of each hand to stretch her mouth, creating the terrifying effect of the “scold’s bridle”; this went on for several minutes as the distortion reduced her attempts to speak to a whimper (and you feared her mouth might never return to its proper shape). Towards the end each performer took up a bundle of thin canes, using them to brush the floor and whip the air as they moved freely around the space. Some of the music — which included passages of intense free improvisation — was inspired by an invocation song collected by musicologists in Jamaica and traced back to the BaKongo tribe of West Central Africa.
It was highly dramatic, of course, and at times harrowing, as it needed to be. Mitchener — who recently collaborated with the pianist Alexander Hawkins on an album of material including songs by Jeanne Lee, Archie Shepp and Patty Waters for the Intakt label, titled UpRoot — is a performer of great passion and uncompromising commitment. Those qualities, allied to a technical command of her various disciplines, are likely to make her a significant presence in the years to come. Last night she made Hawksmoor’s old stones shake.
* There is a further performance tonight — Friday, February 23 — at the John Hansard Gallery in Southampton. ‘Sweet Tooth’ was commissioned by Bluecoat, Liverpool; the Stuart Hall Foundation; and the International Slavery Museum.