Review of Jon Cullen and Marva Rees’s Accidental Martyrs, 21st October 2017

By Victoria Hay.

Marva Rees weaves together the words of eye-witnesses to rush the events of 1588 into our twenty-first-century consciousnesses. This surprising libretto comes across with the urgency of a daily newspaper in which the tapestry of different voices lends credence. Jon Cullen’s score draws on strong musical traditions which reverberate with meaning and association. I would like to share with you three moments which I found particularly moving.

Scene 7: ‘Topcliffe at work’ begins with a movement aligning itself with the first movement of J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. Here we have the same compound quadruple time signature, the same key of E Minor, the sombre tempo and relentless rhythm and the same extended orchestral introduction. The chorale tune sung by the character Margaret Ward at the end of the movement sets these savage words:

Cut me, carve me, wound me!
Sweet Jesus, my well-belov’d!
My pains are all for you, my Lord!
My Jesu gives me courage!

Margaret associates herself with the suffering of her own saviour on the cross.

Scene 9: ‘The Hempen Jig’ closes the work’s journey of faith, courage, violence and conflict. The inexorable progress towards Tyburn tree is for a moment stilled by the Thames waterman, John Roche. He captivates us with these words, beautifully and movingly sung by Bene’t Coldstream:

‘Our souls are ships that lie off-shore awaiting God’s wind and tide, and Christ shall steer us to the shore of heaven.’

The shocking silence which falls at the moment of the hanging powerfully evoked for me the moment in the Christian liturgy of the Passion when a period of silence is kept at the moment of Jesus’ death.

The premier of this fine work was preceded by a performance of J.S. Bach’s cantata ‘Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme’, BWV 140, a beautiful and timely reminder for us to stay awake, to be alert to the lessons of history.


“We really enjoyed the wonderful concert on 21st October. Congratulations to Jon Cullen and all the choir and instrumentalists. A very moving and uplifting evening. Thank you.” Anne Watson.