Is there such a thing as sophisticated drivel? Judging by The Wasp Factory, a fantasy derived by Australian electro-acoustic composer Ben Frost from Iain Banks’s 1984 novel, the answer must be yes. The piece has the trappings of sophistication – an expensive rig, a five-piece string band, a libretto by David Pountney, a Royal Opera co-production, a programme interview with a leading psychiatrist.
Its source material, too, has form. Banks’s tale of a psychopathic teenager on a remote island is groaning with symbolism and has huge theatrical potential, illustrating the sick end of society as graphically as Wedekind’s Lulu plays did for audiences a century ago.
Frost kills this material as systematically and narcissistically as Frank, his anti-hero, targets victims. Commissioned by the Bregenz Festival, The Wasp Factory is an abuse of the word opera, and on this evidence it’s questionable whether Frost can be called a composer. The score consists of violent electronic spasms, long stretches of third-hand rock, pop and minimalism, and a dirge of scrappily pitched narration. This is intoned by three female actor-songsters representing Frank, girl-turned-boy who relates the childhood mutilations he/she suffered and contemplates the impending return of insane brother Eric.
Frost himself directs. Thanks to the overlay of amplified sound vibrations, the wordy text is largely unintelligible, though Frost makes sure the many expletives are audible, and I did catch one line – “women can give birth and men can kill”. The action calls on the three performers to crawl around a platform-like dung heap, picking their noses, exposing their crotches and generally behaving like monkeys – no, that’s disrespectful to monkeys. Nothing really happens.
Who is kidding whom? The Wasp Factory is no better, no worse, than some of the navel-gazing modernism that state-funded arts institutions imagined to be the future in the 1960s and 70s. Judging by Foster’s programme interview, his piece was a necessary vehicle for him to work through a personal childhood trauma. If so, I hope it was therapeutic. The Wasp Factory is another nail in the coffin of the Royal Opera’s artistically bankrupt contemporary programme, and at the end of the 75 minutes I was enormously relieved to get out.