Composition as Textual Illumination: Martin Crimp and George Benjamin Discuss Written on Skin

Written on Skin is the first operatic collaboration between dramatist Martin Crimp, composer George Benjamin and director Katie Mitchell, premiering at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in 2012, before transferring to London’s Royal Opera House in March 2013.1 Crimp’s libretto is based on a 12th century legend, alternatively documented as a 13th century razo (framing prose for a troubadour composition), appearing most influentially in Giovanni Boccaccio’s 14th century work, The Decameron. In The Decameron, a knight called Guillaume de Cabestanh falls in reciprocated love with the wife of fellow nobleman Guillaume de Roussillon. Enraged upon discovering their affair, Roussillon attacks Cabestanh and cuts out his heart. Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus was to echo what followed next, as indeed was Peter Greenaway’s film The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989), as Roussillon summoned his cook to prepare for him and his wife a meal made from this ‘boar’s heart’. Only his wife eats the dish.  On hearing the news that she has literally consumed the object of her own heart’s desire, she throws herself, fatally, out of a window.

The bloody legend that forms the basis of Written on Skin is innovatively dramatised by Crimp. Roussillon becomes The Protector. Cabestanh becomes The Boy, who is a manuscript illuminator tasked with documenting The Protector’s family history. The wife is given a name, Agnès, who comes to reject the domineering, oppressive grasp of The Protector by secretly rejecting his infantilising affection and reciprocating the erotic and amorous love of The Boy. The heart-eating and window-jumping scenes remain much the same. A relationship with the medieval heritage of the source text is themastised in the form of 21st century ‘angels’ who reflect on the action.

The film (below) documents a public talk featuring Crimp, Benjamin and Professor Max Saunders, Director of the Arts & Humanities Research Institute at King’s College London, which took place on 11 October 2013. The event was part of the university’s annual Arts & Humanities Festival, which in 2013 focused on the theme ‘Being | Human’. Opera, as Benjamin notes in the film, is an art form that typically takes as its key themes ‘love’ and ‘death’. Perhaps more than any other, love and death are themes that resonate most strongly with what it means to be human and indeed to be human no more – to be beyond the human, perhaps, as transcendental and Wagnerian notions of love and death might have it, or to (contentiously) lose ‘humanness’ and ‘being’ as the body shifts from corporeality to nothingness. The legend informing Written on Skin is in this regard perfectly suited to the medium of opera.

Collaboration forms one of the most central topics in the dialogue between the three speakers. As Benjamin puts it in the film, the collaborative process is one that is full of uncertainty, but which must ultimately realise itself in the creation of another world. Feeding into this topic is a fascinating account of what it means for a collaborator to ‘illuminate’ the thoughts of another and indeed the ideas arising from within the collaborative process and between collaborators. For Benjamin, Crimp is an ‘image maker’ offering extremely well-structured diagrams for him to ‘colour’ with timbre so that the opera, once illuminated, can ‘glisten’. The world of these two collaborators, then, is a world of images: Crimp, the architectonic writer; Benjamin, the illuminator. As Crimp puts it, it is then up to the audience to ‘cross into’ the world of opera, the image world, the illuminated world, recognising shared things in an otherwise distant landscape, both then – of the medieval – and now.

What emerges from their collaborative process is not a throwing-back-and-forth of ideas between dramatist and composer, as one might otherwise expect to see in the working processes of contemporary devised theatre companies, for instance. Rather, what emerges is something more structured: a collaborative process in which textual diagrams are illuminated by music.

– Adam Alston

Video courtesy of the Arts & Humanities Research Institute at King’s College London
A DVD of Written on Skin is available to purchase from the Royal Opera House


Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. Crimp and Benjamin had previously collaborated on a shorter musical work titled Into the Little Hill (2006).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.