It's true, of course. With the considerable aid of wordsmith Charles Jennens' crystal-clear distillation of Biblical texts, Handel swept the board from 1741 with his hit-after-hit, edge-of-the seat story of Christ from the foretelling of his birth to his death and resurrection.
And in telling, in turn, the story of that momentous time, Drake has everything on his side: matchless music, performed live at the Sam Wanamaker by a small, versatile cast and eight deft singers from The Sixteen, a lovable grump in his central character, the true story of his leading lady's scandal-led flight to Dublin, the scene of Messiah's first performance, and finally that trump card – the jewelbox glitter of the Playhouse itself, candle-lit, intimate, conspiratorial.
As George Frideric Handel, David Horovitch finds in the German-born composer with his lisping English a harrumphing bachelor wrapped round a tender heart. And melting both him and her own fears is "the actress who sings" (Handel groans), Mrs Cibber, who grows so fast as a musician under Handel's influence that he transfers some of the flashy Italian star soprano's arias to Susannah's gentler mezzo-soprano register. Kelly Price plays with compassion and intellect the actress disgraced by her husband and redeemed by Handel.
The play is shot through with Handel's acquaintances, among them the ambitious young composer Charles Burney (who, mysteriously, disappears from the story as fast as he appears), and, less interestingly, a fussing, cussing Irish jobsworth, who gets the last word, a grave mistake when the last sound should have been Handel's. I would have settled for a cheeky wink, and kept the music ringing in my ears.
And the music – the music is wonderful. It's always wonderful, Handel’s Messiah, but in tantalising small portions, and face to face like this, it seems richer than ever, and there is thrilling work from the handful of instrumentalists directed from the harpischord by Michael Haslam, right through to the free-range, valveless trumpet of Adrian Woodward.
Messiah has become associated with Christmas, but this is emphatically a work for all seasons, and All The Angels is not merely about Handel: it is about the alchemy of art: real artists can take you to places they do not know by using the language they do know. How else to explain the breathtaking ability of the awkward, afflicted, gluttonous and often solitary Handel to summon up, both in Messiah and in his many operas, emotions, virtues and vices he could not have experienced?
All The Angels was originally produced at the Sam Wanamaker by then Globe director Dominic Dromgoole. His announcement that he is to stage a series of classic dramas in 2018, with a new company, Classic Spring, starting with plays by Oscar Wilde, is given weight by work of this unashamedly cultural heft.
Under the stellar directorship of Jonathan Munby, whose five-star production of The Merchant of Venice (2016) wowed Globe audiences, the two magical hours of music and, often, merriment, that is All the Angels makes for one of the loveliest evenings in London this winter.
|What||All The Angels review, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse|
|Where||Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, 21 New Globe Walk, London, SE1 9DT | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Blackfriars (underground)|
06 Dec 16 – 12 Feb 17, 12:00 AM
|Price||£10 - £62|
|Website||Click here for more information|