This is an gripping new work, when you can hear it all - Sarah-Clare Conlon


The auditorium was already fuzzy with dry ice as we took our seats, and the slight eeriness of the atmosphere deepened when the lights went down. Tilda Swinton’s measured tones rang out and the orchestra struck up its first note. 

Welcome to the world premiere of new multimedia work by Oscar-nominated composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, Last and First Men, combining a film narrated by actress Swinton and accompanying score played by the BBC Philharmonic.

On screen, we are introduced to a monochrome, almost flat, vision of Brutalist structures and failed concrete, barren landscapes and ominous clouds, shot like still images yet with the tiniest, nearly imperceptible, movements here and there; water in a pool, animals in a field. Recurring motifs emphasise the story we’re listening to; fir trees and triangles are reminiscent of rocketships; circles are the expanding sun, the dying Earth, the exploding stars, the hope of other habitable planets.

The voiceover tells the tale of a human race, of sorts, in its last throes of existence; of attempts to breach 'the boundless ocean of space' and build brave new worlds. It’s all very HG Wells, and, indeed, the script is adapted from the early sci-fi novel by Olaf Stapledon, a friend and peer of the War of the Worlds writer. 

Drawing on real scientific knowledge and research, the story is nonetheless fantastical: in this future, we communicate telepathically and procreate by casting out spores, generating slow-growing offspring of immense intellect. It’s gripping – when you can catch it all. Unfortunately (and despite there being little in the way of climactic moments), the music drowns out the monologue in parts, and, I realised once I’d lost grip of the plot, this tended to happen at crucial points. 

The music itself, however, is fairly mesmerising and works as one element of a whole project. I’m not sure how the minimalistic drone-ness would stand up on its own, but then again Jóhannsson is a master of the soundtrack (think Arrival, and the upcoming Blade Runner 2049). Strings are dominant, closely followed by two soprano voices, creating an etherealness. 

A discordant percussion section is accompanied by some effective lighting techniques, and beams reflected off mirrors and through the smoky air add to the haunting feeling. At times, the film stops and the lighting rig takes over as punctuation. It works the first time round, making the audience concentrate on Swinton’s voice, but later in the performance, it merely feels as if the focus has been lost slightly, which is a shame, as all in all Last and First Men is an exciting new work.

Last and First Men, Bridgewater Hall, Thurs 6 July

image credit: @onenorthernman