Monday, 3 December 2018

Postcard from Minneapolis


The Maddening Music of War


Minnesota State Opera, Silent Night; Lewis Milesone/Great River Film Orchestra, All Quiet on the Western Front; G.W. Pabst, Westfront 1918Kameradschaft; Rose Ensemble, Empire, Religion, War, Peace: Music from the 30 Years’ War



I arrived here in the Midwest just in time for the mid-term elections, closely followed by Remembrance Day weekend and the centenary of Armistice Day. The atmosphere was one of polarisation: international, national, regional, political, economic, social, cultural and along the usual battle-lines of race and gender. If anything this sense of division was even more marked after the elections, leaving the country starkly divided between White House and Congress, Senate and House, urban/suburban and rural electorates, progressive internationalism and reactionary nationalism  – divisions mirrored in rainy Paris by the respective speeches of the French and American presidents (not to mention the squaring off between America and China back in my home region at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Papua New Guinea).

The works I saw in my first two weeks here – and my response to them – were somewhat overshadowed by this sense of national and global confrontation.  

Kevin Puts and Mark Campbell’s Silent Night was originally commissioned and produced by Minnesota State Opera in 2011; the score subsequently won the Pulitzer Prize, and the work has since had dozens of productions in North America and Europe – including nine this season, perhaps not unsurprisingly in the centennial year of the Armistice. The original production was recently revived by the MSO at its home venue the Ordway Centre in Minneapolis; and it’s here that I saw it the week after Remembrance Day. 

Based on the screenplay for the 2005 French film Joyeuse Noël, the opera commemorates what is possibly the one incident in the First World War that almost everybody has heard of: namely, the brief spontaneous truce that broke out on Christmas Eve in 1914, when German, French and British troops laid down their weapons and celebrated Christmas together – only to resume obediently killing each other the next day on the outraged orders of their respective High Commands. I instinctively avoided seeing the film when it came out, but was prepared to give the opera a shot, if for no other reason than to hear composer Kevin Puts’s award-winning score. 

Sadly neither score nor libretto of Silent Night is remotely in the same league as other significant twentieth-century anti-war or anti-fascist musical offerings like Britten’s War Requiem, Tippet’s A Child of Our Time or even (more debatably) Gorecki's 'Symphony of Sorrowful Songs' – all of which notably use 'found' musical or textual material (the poetry of Wilfred Owen in the case of Britten, African-American spirituals in the case of Tippet, and Polish folk songs as well as an inscription on the wall of a Gestapo prison cell in the case of Gorecki) in order to anchor the works in an authenticity and immediacy of reference which also (especially in the case of Tippet) paradoxically enables them to transcend their contexts and speak to themes of atrocity and injustice across time and space with deeply felt horror and anger as well as sorrow and compassion. Of course because they were composed for churches or concert halls such works also have the advantage of eschewing any direct dramatic representation of their respective narrative content; as such they obey a kind of secular taboo on images by keeping the obscenity of that content properly off-stage while using music and words alone to stare relentlessly into the abyss.

In comparison with these precursors the failings of Silent Night are all the more conspicuous. Most perplexing is the almost perverse absence of any direct rendition of the actual Christmas carols sung by the German and Allied troops – not even including ‘Silent Night’ itself – which would have provided the obvious musical and dramaturgical germ for the entire opera. Possibly this decision was made in the interests of compositional integrity; however I could detect no other authentic original voice amidst the clamour. Instead the musical style of the work is a kind of melange of various national genres or references to ‘typical’ composers: Wagner, Debussy, Mahler, Elgar and a rather laboured pastiche of Mozart (or possibly Gluck) in the opening scene – which rather implausibly takes place in a German opera house in 1914 where a performance is interrupted and the leading tenor conscripted onstage (in front of his wife who is also the lead soprano) when perhaps the more merciful act would have been simply to shoot him on the spot and dispense with an increasingly superfluous romantic subplot. 

This ‘everything-but-the-kitchen sink’ stylistic approach pays obvious homage to the nationalities of the characters, whose musical and dramatic personalities in turn are little more than emblematic of their respective homelands. However it does so only at the cost of reducing both music and drama to one or at most two dimensions: national origin in the case of the music, with the schematic addition of military rank, social class and romantic or familial relationships in the case of the characters. As such the score suffers from a kind of academism and even historicism which borders on the musical equivalent of l’art pompier; indeed when the Scottish soldiers began singing in bad Highland accents I was seized with an urge to call the fire brigade immediately. At times I wondered if I was watching a Broadway musical with a title like Western Front Story– or perhaps a Hollywood remake of Joyeuse Noel.

As for the structure of Mark Campbell’s libretto, I couldn’t help suspecting that it had been all-too constrained by the screenplay on which it was based. The alarum bells went off in the opening scene, which introduced our two opera-singer romantic leads Nikolaus Sprink (tenor Myles Mykkanen) and Anna Sorensen (soprano Karin Wolverton), who both sang well enough (though I found Wolverton’s voice a little grating) but were scarcely needed as a musical or plot device, and about whose relationship or fate I could not have cared less, in comparison with the soldiers and officers who were surely the opera’s real subjects. 

Among the latter, the most convincingly written (and performed) both musically and dramatically in terms of subtlety and complexity were the German-Jewish Lieutenant Horstmayer (baritone Joshua Jeremiah) and the French Lieutenant Audebert (baritone Edward Parks), along with the Scottish Lieutenant Gordon (Christian Thurston – struggling manfully with his accent). All three in different ways convincingly navigated and expressed their ambivalence towards the war and their assigned task in it, and in the case of Horstmayer and Audebert were also given simple but touching backstories. 

Indeed for me the most effective and moving scenes in the opera occurred after interval in the Second Act: firstly when the three officers agreed to extend the truce on Christmas Day to bury their dead and exchanged amicable if halting (and comic) trilingual small-talk on the battlefield (the English surtitles lending additional irony to the exchange); and later when individual soldiers from the ensemble sang haunting extracts from letters home in their respective languages on Christmas Night. These scenes justified and made use of the material and its form as a multilingual opera, and both score and libretto (as well as the players of the Minnesota Opera Orchestra under Courtney Lewis’s sensitive conducting) rose splendidly to the occasion. They also provided moments of much-needed stillness and contemplation in the otherwise somewhat hectic direction and staging of Eric Simonson – as well as Francis O’Connor’s picturesque revolving set, which looked like an illustration from a children’s book or museum diorama, complete with dead trees and the ruined façade of a church that wobbled slightly whenever the revolve came to a standstill, and huge projected flags on scrims (in case we were in any doubt about the nations involved).

In sum: I couldn’t help feeling that the popularity of Silent Night had more to do with its mostly pre-modernist and user-friendly score, its Broadway-style libretto and staging, and its sentimental, slightly pious and falsely consoling message, than any actual achievements as a work of contemporary opera. Perhaps there’s something about the so-called ‘Great War’ itself – and more specifically the story of the Christmas Truce – that inspires a kind of Edwardian nostalgia for a mythical time at the close of the Age of Empire when everyone still knew their place and a certain chivalry still prevailed. Such nostalgia is especially evident in Anglophone countries (not least Australia, with its Anzac obsession); but it also informs the more resentful and reactionary forms of nationalism that led to the ensuing catastrophe of the Second World War – and which in various forms still plague us globally today.

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Down the street from where I’m staying in the cosy inner suburb of Longfellow, the tiny local non-profit art-house Trylon Cinema commemorated Armistice Day weekend with two benefit screenings of the lesser-know silent version of Lewis Milestone’s 1930 epic All Quiet on the Western Front to raise money for Minnesota veterans, alongside two even more powerful and newly restored anti-war classics from 1930 and 1931 by the great Austrian theatre and film director G.W. Pabst: Westfront 1918 and Kameradschaft (Comradeship). All three packed far more punch than Silent Night – and in the case of All Quiet also included a far more effective use of live music. 

The film was originally released in two versions: the better-known talkie and a (somewhat re-edited and slightly shorter) so-called International Sound Version which included music and sound effects but removed the American-English spoken dialogue and replaced it with inter-titles for an international audience. The silent version is arguably superior both because of its tighter, more fluid and expressive editing (silent cinema being at the time a much more advanced art-form than talkies) and because it dispenses with the dialogue, much of which was lamely delivered by the actors and in any case sounded somewhat incongruous coming from the mouths of German soldiers and French civilians. 

The Trylon screenings however went one better by dispensing with the music and sound effects as well, and replacing these with a semi-improvised live accompaniment by The Great River Film Orchestra, comprising local Twin Cities musicians Keith Lee on baritone guitar, piano and autoharp (a kind of zither), Nathan Grumdahl on drums and synthesizer, and Matt Sowell on electric lap steel guitar and industrial equipment. 

The original soundtrack’s essentially pre-war, classical-romantic and alternately militaristic or elegiac orchestral style has an unfortunate tendency either to sentimentalise or even glorify war, much like the soundtracks of so many war and even anti-war movies since (a tendency that arguably extends to the score of Silent Night). Indeed this is arguably one reason for Truffaut’s paradoxical remark that he had never seen an anti-war film that didn’t end up being pro-war. The Great River Film Orchestra however treated us to a much more hand-held, expressionist and even contemporary industrial sound, which suited both the material and the medium. 

The result was like watching a horror film, the visceral impact of which was considerably increased by the music being performed live in semi-darkness in front of the screen, and largely improvised in response to the images projected there. This was especially the case during the remarkably staged and filmed battle and bombardment scenes, when the moaning chords of the autoharp and plangent howls of slide guitar mingled with the crash of cymbals and drums, and the machine–gun rattling of industrial junk percussion; but it was no less telling in the earlier scenes of jingoistic street parades and enthusiastic recruitment-sessions in school classrooms, which were more starkly underscored by ominously sustained piano-chords; as well as during the interludes of ceasefire, on furlough and in the hospital barracks, which were hauntingly accompanied by the slide guitar.

Despite some of the more predictable elements in the essentially generic content of All Quiet (which after all virtually invented the genres of both Hollywood war and protest-movies) I left the cinema much more shaken than I had been by Silent Night. The early recruiting scenes in particular (and their eerie musical accompaniment) had me immediately thinking about the bellicose nationalism and militarism currently being preached in the US, Russia, China and elsewhere around the world, and fearing lest history repeat itself with even more catastrophic consequences.

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Although probably most famous for his silent Pandora’s Box with Louise Brooks (based on Wedekind’s Luluplays), G.W. Pabst came into his own in 1930–31 with a trio of great social-realist sound films: Westfront 1918, Kameradschaft and a controversial version of Brecht and Weil’s Threepenny Opera which was the subject of a lawsuit by the playwright and composer but made a movie star of Lotte Lenya. Certainly Pabst is a much more significant film-maker than Milestone, and German cinema was far more advanced than Hollywood in the early 1930s – and indeed arguably led the world in that art-form until the catastrophe of Nazism, from which (like Pabst himself) it never recovered, until the brief blazing flare of Fassbinder and rise of the New German Cinema in the 70s. 

Westfront tells a similar story to All Quiet – about the physical and mental impact of the war on a group of friends in the German army who are progressively disillusioned, wounded, maimed, killed or driven insane by the conflict – but it does so in a much bleaker and more horrifying way, and uses much more advanced techniques such as long complex overhead tracking shots through the trenches and the deliberate absence of visual perspective during the chaotic battle scenes. Certain images leave an indelible imprint: the death of one of the main characters in a shell-crater leaving only his hand sticking out of the mud; another driven mad and dragged from battle shouting ‘Hurrah!’ while saluting piles of corpses; and a final scene in a field hospital that seems to come straight out of a medieval vision of hell as depicted by Hieronymus Bosch – or perhaps an etching by Otto Dix, Pabst’s contemporary and fellow practitioner of the so-called ‘new objectivity’ in art that succeeded expressionism in the latter years of the Weimar Republic. The closing image of a blinded French soldier reaching out unwittingly to hold the hand of a German – who has just died and been covered by a sheet on the stretcher beside him – and murmuring ‘Comrades, not enemies!’ is both hopeful and hopeless at the same time (recalling Kafka’s saying that ‘there is hope, but not for us’) even as it evokes the title of Pabst’s next film, which is effectively a sequel to this one; yet even this image is followed by the closing title with its chilling question mark: ‘The End?’ (In this regard it’s worth remembering that Armistice Day is just that: the commemoration of a cessation of hostilities – albeit with onerous terms for the German side – rather than a formal surrender; an anomaly which contributed to the fact that ‘the War to End All Wars’ in a sense never ended – much like the American Civil War which is arguably still being waged by white supremacists to this day.)

The French-German co-production Kameradschaft more or less picks up where the previous film leaves off, but is even more technically sophisticated and perhaps ultimately more humanist in its narrative and vision. Set in a town on the French-German border in the immediate aftermath of the war, it tells the story of a group of German coal miners who risk their lives coming to the rescue of their French counterparts who are trapped in a neighbouring mine after a gas explosion. The film combines realism and expressionism even more effectively than Westfront 1918, and deliberately evokes imagery from the latter in scenes such as the terrifying domino-like collapse of the mine-supports (recalling a claustrophobic scene from the earlier film in which the German soldiers struggle to keep their trench-supports from collapsing during a bombardment) or –hauntingly – when an oxygen-starved French miner sees his German rescuers approaching him wearing gas-masks and has a flashback to the trenches, leading him to attack them in his delirium. Yet if the penultimate scene of Kameradschaft – in which a mass-meeting of survivors leads to expressions of solidarity from both sides – ‘We are not enemies, we are all workers!’ – is more optimistic and politically charged than anything in Westfront, it is nevertheless followed by the bleak image of French and German border guards re-installing the metal grille that separates the two nations even underground (and which the German miners had kicked asunder earlier in the film to reach their French counterparts). 

Unlike either the sound or silent versions of All Quiet, both Pabst films tellingly have no music at all in the soundtrack, other than the diegetic use of cabaret music with which the French villagers entertain the German troops in an early scene of Westfront – a scene paralleled in Kameradshaftwhen the German miners enter a local music-hall in the French part of town, and a misunderstanding leads to a fight when one of them is snubbed by a French woman. Pabst had a much more nuanced understanding of the role of music in theatre, cinema and politics – as well as the psychology of nationalism, war and conflict, and the socio-economic conditions that fuel them – than Milestone (let alone the composer and librettist of Silent Night). Artistically he had lived and worked as a theatre director and actor in New York before the War, and was interned in a French prisoner-of-war camp on his return to Europe, where he formed a theatre group inside the camp; politically he made no secret of his Marxist affiliations (at least until the Nazis took power), and later faced at first-hand the compromises imposed on him by both the Nazi and Hollywood regimes; so he had skin in the game when it came to the subject-matter he was drawn to as a film-maker throughout his career. 

As such, his films have a great deal to tell us about our contemporary situation, which in many ways alarmingly resembles the era of economic precarity and intensified nationalism that preceded and led to both World Wars.

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From opera to silent film with live musical accompaniment to sound film with minimal music, I finished my ‘week of war’ with an experience of pure music (vocal and instrumental) by local Twin Cities early music group The Rose Ensemble, in collaboration with the Augsburg University Choir and early music ensemble Dark Horse Consort, performing a program of music entitled Empire, Religion, War, Peace: Music from Europe’s 30-Year Conflict, 1618–48

The concert was performed at three different churches; I saw it at the magnificent and recently restored neo-Romanesque Church of the Assumption in downtown Saint Paul – a Catholic church founded by German immigrants fleeing persecution poverty and persecution in search of a better life in the mid-19thCentury. So the performance had a visual component as well: one which, like the music itself, had a soaring beauty while also indirectly reminding us of its enduring religious (and sectarian) context and history.

The program included works by Bach’s great German precursor Schütz (who travelled to Italy where he was influenced by Gabrielli and Monteverdi) as well as other contemporary German composers who wrote work in response to the conflict – all of it in the service of their respectively Catholic or Protestant Princes and thus heavily partisan, but much of it of surpassing spiritual beauty or deeply rousing in a way that transcends the circumstances of its composition. 

The works were given glorious and passionate voice by the ensemble and choir, with outstanding work from tenor Bradley King, mezzo-soprano Alyssa Anderson, and the clear soprano of Kristina Boerger, who also conducted the Augsberg Choir. They were given delicately rich support by the Dark Horse Consort’s variously sized sackbuts (early trombones, more or less) and sweetly tuned cornettos (which are like curved wooden trumpets with finger-holes) – all resounding in the majestic acoustics of the church.

The performance was a timely reminder that 2018 is also the 400thanniversary of what was arguably the first ‘modern’ war in that it involved virtually all of Europe’s major powers; was at least ostensibly waged in the name of ideology (in this case religious) even if in fact largely driven by power-politics and fought by indistinguishable armies of mercenaries; and saw the death of over 8 million people – or about a sixth of the population of Europe, including over a third of the population of the German and Czech lands – either in battle or from violence, plague and starvation. 

Unlike the both World Wars however – or even the American Civil War – there are only written (and artistic) records of the conflict. This makes it a fascinating object for imaginative contemplation – as Brecht did with Mother Courage, which was based on the 17thCentury German writer Grimmelshausen, whose picaresque novel Simplicissimus fictionalised his own experiences in the war, but which Brecht used to hold a mirror up to the role of capitalism in the Second World War.

In this case the Rose Ensemble allowed us to close our eyes and imagine the war and its impact for ourselves, with the aid of a spoken narrative thread interspersed between the musical items, delivered at a lectern by individual members of the ensemble and drawn from contemporary personal accounts by Schütz himself as well as a Swabian cobbler-farmer Hans Heberle (who kept a diary during the war after seeing a comet and interpreting it as a sign of his mission to record what he saw) and the Polish-German poet Andreas Gryphius, who witnessed horrific atrocities against civilians and wrote about them with unsurpassed lyricism. As he wrote in his poem ‘Tears of the Fatherland’, which was read during the concert (in English translation): 

So, now we are destroyed; utterly; more than utterly!
The gang of shameless peoples, the maddening music of war,
The sword fat with blood, the thundering of the guns
Have consumed our sweat and toil, exhausted our reserves.
Towers are on fire, churches turned upside down;
The town hall is in ruins, the strong cut down, destroyed.
Young girls are raped; wherever we turn our gaze,
Fire, plague, and death pierce heart and spirit through.
Here, town and ramparts run with ever-fresh streams of blood.
It's three times six years now, since our mighty river's flow
Was blocked almost by corpses, just barely trickling through.

I found the cumulative experience of this concert – music, narration, architecture, the context of Armistice Day and our contemporary times of trouble – a deeply moving cause for reflection and culmination of the week's performance-going. As the German-Bohemian composer Andreas Hammerschmidt’s motet ‘Verleih uns Friede’ (‘grant us peace’) implored in the words of Martin Luther at the concert’s conclusion:

In your mercy grant us peace, 
Lord, in these our times.


Friday, 21 September 2018

Postcard from Perth #57




Lost and Found Opera, Actéon/Anything Is Valid Dance Theatre, Dust on the Shortbread


Site-specific theatre and performance has become all the rage in recent years. At their best, such productions allow for a mutually illuminating dialogue between venue and work; often they also use the space to refresh our experience of performance itself by immersing the audience visually and spatially in the work with the performers.

Last week I saw two shows that used non-theatre venues to very different but equally telling effect: Lost and Found Opera’s staging of Charpentier’s Actéon at the UWA Aquatic Centre, and Anything Is Valid Dance Theatre’s devised work Dust on the Shortbread, which was performed at private house in North Perth.

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Lost and Found Opera has been presenting neglected or ‘lost’ works from the repertoire in alternative or ‘found’ spaces in Perth for the past six years. Past productions include Poulenc’s La Voix Humaine in a hotel room; Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti in a suburban house in City Beach; Milhaud’s Medée in a former cell for female asylum inmates at Fremantle Arts Centre; and Viktor Ullman’s Atlantis (which was written in Theresienstadt concentration camp) at Perth Hebrew Congregation Synagogue. 

Charpentier’s baroque chamber opera (or ‘pastorale’) Actéon is based on a story in Ovid’s Metamorphoses about a man out hunting in the forest who stumbles across the goddess Diana bathing naked in a pool, and is punished for his transgression by being transformed into a stag and torn apart by his own hounds. The circumstances surrounding its composition and first performance are unknown, but it would have been in a non-theatre space, owing to the royal monopoly held by Lully over the public performance of stage music in Paris at the time. Possibly it was commissioned by Charpentier’s patron the Duchesse de Guise as an entertainment at her palatial home; or perhaps by Louis XIV’s son the Dauphin, who also commissioned works from the composer for performance in his private chapel – and who like Actéon was apparently a keen hunter. The composer himself sang the lead role when it was first performed during the spring hunting season of 1684; when it was remounted in autumn later that same year, the role was changed from a counter-tenor to a soprano, and the work was renamed, Actéon changé en biche (‘Actéon changed into a doe’). 

Charpentier had studied composition in Rome, and his incorporation of the latest Italian developments in harmony and counterpoint were in defiance of Lully’s nationalistic efforts to ‘purify’ French music. The younger composer’s sacred vocal music was especially acclaimed, and he also wrote stage music for Molière (after the playwright quarrelled with Lully). Musically, dramatically and perhaps even in terms of its staging and performance, Actéon can thus be seen as an ‘alternative’ and even transgressive work. 

Lost and Found’s latest production of Actéon was staged in and around a covered 25-metre swimming pool at the UWA Aquatic Centre. Conducted and re-orchestrated by Artistic Director Chris van Tuinen, it featured a tight ensemble of seven wind, keyboard and percussion players, and periodically bent the genre of the work from baroque to contemporary jazz. The cast ranged from professional opera singers in the principal roles to younger singer-performers as the respectively female and male choruses of Nymphs and Hunters, as well as a team of female synchronized swimmers (drawn from local volunteer sporting organisation SynchroWA) who augmented the action in the water, much as ballet dancers would have graced the stage in traditional baroque opera productions. 

In an impressive feat of creative vision and artistic coordination, the production was directed by multi-talented Perth actor-singer-dancer-performer-writer-director Brendan Hanson, with simple but effective choreography by Laura Boynes, which successfully integrated the various styles of movement utilised by all the performers in relation to each other as well as the architecture of the venue. The similarly minimal but brilliantly unified set and costume design by Tyler Hill and lighting design by Karen Cook featured a collection of on-water floating orbs containing LED lights which periodically changed colour, with extra illumination provided by a small but perfectly judged lighting rig, and an array of delightfully tongue-in-cheek costumes and the odd prop (crucially including a stuffed and de-mounted stag’s head). The audience were seated at one end and along one side of the pool on standard terraced benches with waterproof ponchos provided for those in the more expensive (and exposed) ‘poolside’ front-row seats.  

The production began in playful mode with Actéon (countertenor Russell Harcourt) and his chorus of hunters dressed as uni students on the rampage after a college ball entering the space through the roof down a ladder and sporting the stolen stag’s head as a trophy. Things become more surreal with the arrival of the synchronised swimmers in flesh-toned bodysuits, followed by the goddess Diana (mezzo-soprano Ashlyn Tymms) and her chorus of nymphs and attendants Arthebuze (Corinne Cowling), Daphne (Bonnie de la Hunty) and Hyale (Caitlin Cassidy, who later doubled as the goddess Juno).

The singing was thrilling throughout – especially from Harcourt in the title role, his shrill countertenor lancing and piercing through the space, with Tymms lending her warm powerful mezzo voice to the role of Diana, and Caitlin Cassidy providing strong support as Hyale, and later as a fiery Juno – all naturally amplified by the echoing acoustic of the venue. Watching these fine actor-singers plunge into the pool, swim around and generally disport themselves while continuing to sing was truly astonishing; and seeing the synchronised swimming team display their skills at close quarters (and beautifully lit) was an unexpectedly enchanting visual analogue of nymphs at play.  

In terms of mood, the production took me on a surprisingly nuanced journey from playful comedy to surreal beauty, and then entered deeper waters with the punishment and death of Actéon, the staging becoming more abstract and ritualised as the music became more dramatic and tragic, especially for Actéon’s plaintive recitative following his transformation, Juno’s vengeful account of his death, and the sorrowful final chorus, in this version movingly sung by the hunters and nymphs as a combined male-female choral lament.

In this regard, the director’s program note invoking the #MeToo movement gave the production a contemporary frame of reference that opened up a level of complexity both to the work itself and to the current debate about sexual misconduct, especially by men in positions of power. I saw the production with my daughter, and afterwards we had a discussion about Actéon’s level of guilt and the appropriateness (or otherwise) of his punishment. Perhaps it’s drawing a long bow to compare Actéon’s accidental transgression (and the cruel punishment inflicted on him by Diana and Juno) with the accusations (from inappropriate behaviour to harassment, assault or abuse) currently being exposed in the media and judged in the court of public opinion as well as in the legal system, in the workplace and in personal relationships. Nevertheless, beneath the current wave of righteous denunciations and calls for change, perhaps there are deeper historical, social and psychological layers to the seemingly endless cycle of accusation and denial, judgement and retribution, that need to be acknowledged if we are to move forward collectively – as men and women – with all our imperfections.

If this is the case, perhaps mythology and art can provide not exactly a mirror but more precisely a lense through which to view our contemporary troubles. Opera in particular – with its historical and cultural origins in Greek tragedy – is well-suited to excavating the roots of some of the ills that afflict us, and perhaps has a cathartic power to heal some of our wounds. The earliest works in the genre – the Italian Renaissance composer Jacopo Peri’s Dafne and Eurydicefollowed by Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo (arguably the earliest opera still regularly performed) – were explicitly conceived as a revival of Classical Greek drama that combined music, theatre, song and dance in order to re-enact the stories of ancient myth. In terms of their social function, opera and Greek tragedy arguably share a common historical origin in communal rituals of human and animal sacrifice (the word ‘tragedy’ comes from a Greek word meaning ‘goat-song’) re-enacted to be sure in a purely symbolic form. Even the plots of most operas (like most myths) are stories of suffering and sacrifice, from the death of Eurydice (and Orpheus himself at the hands of the Bacchae) to the grand gestures and tragic dénouements of the lead characters (male and female) in the Romantic and contemporary repertoire, from Bellini, Donizetti, Verdi and Puccini to Jake Heggie and Terrence McNally’s Dead Man Walking

In a sense, we still go to the opera for the same reason the Romans once attended the Colosseum or aficionados watch a bull-fight: to see how well the lead characters die. The aesthetic pleasure in seeing death ‘well-done’ – or at least well-told – answers to deep psychological and social needs, and perhaps points to an ethical imperative: to acknowledge the complexity of things, as well as our faults and imperfections, and that even when wrongs have been done and suffered, our judgement can be tempered with understanding and compassion.

As the Chorus sings at the end of the opera: Quel cœur, à ce malheur, ne seroit pas sensible ‘What heart would not be touched by this unhappy tale?’

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Anything is Valid Dance Theatre is another Perth company specialising in what they refer to as ‘site-alternative’ performance, breaking down barriers between audiences and performers and exploring what lies at the margins of mainstream performance practice, repertoire and subject-matter, with previous work performed in caravans and laneways as well as making mobile, immersive, one-on-one and audio-guided work.

Dust on the Shortbread is currently being presented by AusDance WA as part of Move Me Festival 2018. The work explores ageing and dementia – and more generally memory and forgetting – and their impact on personal relationships and identity in the context of a suburban home. Choreographers and co-artistic directors Serena Chalker and Quindell Orton have been developing the work for three years in collaboration with performers Elizabeth Cameron Dalman and George Shevtsov, two greatly respected elders in their respective fields of contemporary dance and theatre/film. 

The performance takes place in a small single-storey cottage in North Perth, with the two performers moving in and around the living room and adjacent kitchen, front hallway, bathroom/laundry and backyard. Last Thursday I was part of an audience of 15 people, and we waited outside on the front porch before being admitted and finding a place for ourselves in the living room with the two performers already in situ; we were then free to move around during the performance, sitting or perching on chairs or a sofa, or standing wherever we chose, while the performers moved around us – sometimes talking or doing domestic activities, sometimes dancing or performing more stylised movements, and sometimes interacting with each other or (more rarely) with us, but mostly ‘in their own worlds’. Domestic ceiling lights and lamps were switched on and off by the performers during the show, and they also occasionally played records on a turntable or listened to an old radio; and these sounds were augmented by a more abstract, intermittent sound design by Tristen Parr, which seeped in and out of the space as if welling up and then sinking back again into the inner landscapes of the characters and their memories – all which remained ultimately elusive, both to us and them, despite their attempts to recall and reconnect with them, and with each other.

A week after seeing this show, images still haunt me: of two people talking past each other, fixated on their separate memories and endlessly repeating themselves; of a woman telling the story of how she met the love of her life, while he dances in front her, each oblivious to the other; of hands resting on a table-cloth, more expressive than words or faces; of a man piling furniture up in the middle of the room, becoming more agitated, and forgetting a key word in his story; of a woman wandering outside, occasionally visible as she passes a window; of two people dancing together wordlessly in a hallway, briefly united in the present moment and in their bodies.

I found the delicacy and tenderness of this work very beautiful, sometimes funny, often heartbreaking, and ultimately deeply moving. As well as being an exploration of dementia and forgetting, it made me think about our attachment to the past, and conversely, about the slender thread of the present, which is really all we have to go on to lead us through the labyrinth – as performers, as audience-members, and in our daily lives and relationships, as time goes by and we advance further and further into the unknowable.





Tuesday, 21 August 2018

Postcard from Perth #56






Tristan und Isolde, Stuart Skelton, Gun-Brit Barkmin, Ekaterina Gubanova, Boaz Daniel, Ain Anger, WA Symphony Orchestra, Asher Fisch, Perth Concert Hall, August 16 and 19


Since becoming Principal Conductor and Artistic Advisor of WASO in 2014, Asher Fisch has been assiduously cultivating the orchestra’s sound and profile and ambitiously extending its repertoire and programming. A specialist in German Romantic and post-Romantic opera and symphonic music, he began his career as Barenboim’s assistant at the Berlin Staatsoper, and has since held positions or been a guest conductor with most of the major European and North American opera houses and orchestras. Under his baton (and the sensitive leadership of concertmaster Laurence Jackson) the WASO strings in particular have developed a more sumptuously blended European sound, while the wind and percussion sections (led by many fine individual players) have continued to go from strength to strength. 

In terms of programming, Fisch has embarked on a notable series of composer-specific projects with the orchestra, including their Beethoven and Brahms cycles in 2014 and 2015, and ‘Wagner and Beyond’ concerts in 2016 and 2017. Meanwhile, he has invited outstanding international colleagues and friends like Pinchas Zukerman and Garrick Ohlsson to appear with WASO as soloists. The 90thAnniversary Gala concert performances of Tristan und Isolde last Thursday and Sunday were in some ways a culmination of all these strands in Fisch’s work with the orchestra so far, featuring one of the world’s leading heldentenors, Australian Stuart Skelton, as Tristan; German rising-star soprano Gun-Brit Barkmin as Isolde (a last-minute replacement for Eva-Maria Westbroek); and a supporting cast of international specialists in their respective roles, including Russian mezzo Ekaternina Gubanova as Brangäne, Israeli baritone Boaz Daniel as Kurwenal, and Estonian bass-baritone Ain Anger (who has sung Fafner and Hunding in various Ring cycles) as King Marke.

Tristan und Isolde is a watershed both in Wagner’s development and the entire history of Western music. The famously ambiguous ‘Tristan-chord’ that opens the prelude and the chromaticism that pervades the rest of the opera open the door to Debussy, Strauss and finally the abandonment of tonality by Schoenberg and his followers. In terms of musical structure the work dispenses with traditional forms of harmonic progression or thematic development (for which Wagner substitutes the building-blocks of more or less fixed leitmotifs) as well as any discernible arias; and the continually shifting tempi, rhythmic patterns and time-signatures destroy any sense of temporal stability and evoke the ever-changing sea that is such a central element in the narrative and emotional landscape. 

In terms of dramaturgical content and form,  the ethereal setting, minimal plot, static action, emotionally paralysed characters and their increasingly prolonged and tormented monologues anticipate the subsequent theatrical development of Symbolism and Expressionism. The work’s underlying philosophical and psychological themes also break new ground: both as a direct expression of Wagner’s recent reading of Schopenhauer, whose pessimistic twist on German Idealism was in turn influenced by his peculiar reading of Buddhism; and as a harbinger of Freud’s imminent theory of sexuality and the death instinct as the driving forces of the unconscious (unbewusst being in fact one of the last words of the Liebestod sung by Isolde at the end of the opera). In terms of what might be called the work’s negative theology, Tristan is a meditation on the gulf between knowing and not-knowing, seeing and not-seeing, language and wordlessness. 

A concert performance thus has much to recommend it as an appropriate form of representation for a work that challenges the limits of representation itself. As Tristan sings to King Marke, when the latter asks how the pain and shame of his betrayal and jealousy can be explained: ‘O King, that I cannot tell you; and what you ask, that can you never learn’; before going on to invoke an obscure primordial realm of darkness, unconsciousness and non-existence, which he explicitly compares to his mother’s womb, and which he longs to return to by ‘extinguishing’ the light of day, consciousness and ultimately life itself. Hearing Tristan performed without seeing it staged thus allows us to ‘see’ its images with the mind’s eye, much as Tristan ‘sees’ Isolde’s ship (and Isolde herself) arriving in Act Three (even when she arrives in the flesh, he ‘sees’ and ‘hears’ without seeing or hearing her, until finally the two lovers ‘join’ each other in the ecstasy of death). A concert performance thus remains true to the opera’s invocation of a via negativa, in which the sensory world of appearance is seen and known to be an illusion in comparison with the real, while the latter cannot be represented or directly experienced, except in death. It grants us access to the negative vision of ecstasy in the vast Love-Duet in Act Two that lies at the heart of the opera, when the torches in Isolde’s garden are extinguished and the two lovers entwine and merge in a kind of soul-union – not physically (despite the pulsing, thrusting, accelerating and surging moans of the orchestra) but vocally and sonically.

Indeed it’s above all on a sonic level (as well imaginatively and conceptually) that I found this concert performance so overwhelming from the moment the cellos began the sighing, soaring, yearning ‘Tristan’ leitmotif that opens the Prelude. Quite simply, no conventional staging in an opera house – with the orchestra buried in a covered pit beneath the stage (a technical innovation ironically instigated by Wagner himself) and singers typically framed by a proscenium arch with a fly-tower and wings extending above and to either side of them (and thus all-too-frequently swallowing their voices) – can match the sound of an orchestra (and the singers in front of it) on an open stage in a concert hall (especially one with the acoustics of Perth, widely regarded as the finest in the country) in terms of sheer impact as well as detail. Last Sunday I was fortunate enough to be sitting in the front row of the audience and right in front of Isolde, who sings the lion’s share of Act One; she was later joined on that side of the stage by Tristan for the Love-Duet in Act Two; he returned there for the immense monologue that forms the bulk of Act Three; and Isolde rejoined him there again for his death, and to sing the final Liebestod. 

As for the performances: Gun-Brit Barkmin was a thrilling Isolde, her hard bright silver-edged soprano as sharp as a sword but with plenty of depth to support it. A specialist in roles like Salome and Marie in Wozzek, she evoked a youthful but strong-willed Isolde, and this together with the controlled intensity of her acting made the role almost seem like an Expressionist prototype (an impression enhanced by her Louise Brooks-style bob haircut and expressive face and hands). Her voice and characterization also made for a satisfying contrast with Ekaterina Gubanova’s warm, rich mezzo and compassionate performance as Brangäne in Acts One and Two, especially when the two vocal lines are interrupting or calling and responding to each other. One of the most beautiful passages in the entire opera is Brangäne’s Watch (Habet acht! –‘Take care!’), which she sings during a lull in the Love Duet between Tristan and Isolde in Act Two; and this was memorably staged by having Gubanova appear and sing above and behind most of the audience in the Dress Circle, thus immersing us sonically in the scene.

Stuart Skelton is currently at his peak as Tristan, and clearly knows the role like the back of his hand, but still seemed open to a sense of discovery, especially in his evident rapport with Barkmin. The voice is effortlessly powerful (except when effort is required as part of the performance, as it is in Act Three), but perhaps at its most impressive when it softens and caresses like brushed velvet, as it did during the ineffably tender Love Duet. Despite his power, maturity and assurance, he seemed almost to defer to Barkmin’s more impulsive and at times more fragile Isolde, and his emotional desolation and psychological disintegration in Act Three was unbearably heartbreaking. He was ably supported by Boaz Daniel’s rich-voiced Kurwenal, who gave a slightly hammy performance in Act One, but inhabited the role more genuinely and touchingly in Act Three; while Ain Anger in his two crucial appearances as King Marke endowed this difficult role as the wounded but forgiving husband and friend with dignity and pathos, giving a subtle and understated performance – assisted by a magnificent voice – that conveyed the complexity of this character’s feelings.

For me though the hero of the night was Maestro Fisch, whose rendition of the score combined the drive and energy of Kleiber with the control and attention to sensuous beauty of Karajan (to cite just two of the many great conductors of this work), while always remaining in a state of creative rapport (and evident pleasure) with the singers and the orchestra. The sound he coaxed from the WASO strings was ravishing, led by delicate and heartfelt playing from Laurence Jackson, with outstanding contributions from Alexander Millier on bass clarinet and Leanne Glover on cor anglais. 

In many ways this was the most thrilling experience I’ve had from Fisch and WASO so far – as well as one of the most revelatory Wagner experiences I’ve had in my life. I’m consumed with curiosity about what Fisch has in store for us next year. A concert performance of Parsifal perhaps? Bring it on.

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Postcard from Adelaide Festival 2018


Kings of War, Human Requiem, Bennelong, Xenos, Azza, Taha


Last week I was in Adelaide for the final week of the Festival and saw a series of works ­– both monumental and intimate – dealing with political, social and psychological crisis, conflict and catastrophe; loss and trauma; grief and mourning. There were glimmers of hope, healing or at least consolation, but all in all, it was grimmer fare than the works I saw at the Perth Festival in the preceding month. I left feeling that we are indeed living in an era of polarisation – religious, racial, ethnic, national, regional, gender, sexual, economic – and that it is currently the task of art (and politics) to bridge these polarities rather than subscribing to them.

*


Kings of War is a four-and-a-half-hour adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry V, Henry VI (Parts 1, 2 and 3) and Richard III directed by Ivo van Hove for the Toneelgroep Amsterdam. The production premiered at the Vienna Festwochen in June 2015 – a year before Brexit and a week before Trump announced he was running for president – and has since been performed in Amsterdam, Paris, London and New York; the New York season opened the weekend before Trump was elected.

Van Hove has always been interested in adapting classic plays (and screenplays) in order to take them apart and examine the inner mechanisms of politics, psychology and power. He does this using contemporary but heightened language (Shakespeare’s plays are here translated into Dutch by Rob Klinkeberg and adapted by Bart Van den Eynde and dramaturg Peter Van Kraaij), minimalist but spectacular staging (in collaboration with long-term lighting and set designer Jan Versweyveld and regular video designer Tal Yarden), contemporary but simple costumes (designed by An D’Huys) and underplayed ‘film-style’ acting, often augmented by the capture and amplification of onstage and off-stage action and dialogue using live and pre-recorded video and radio-mics. A fusion of minimalism and spectacle is the hallmark of his style, along with a contemporary resonance that doesn’t limit itself to any specific parallels.

The van Hove theatrical machine is thus a perfect fit for Shakespeare’s history plays, which deal with the dynastic, civil and foreign wars and struggles that afflicted England (and by extension its neighbour France) two centuries before the plays themselves were written, but also reflected contemporary politics, society and personalities. Like van Hove and his creative team, Shakespeare freely adapted existing plays and other contemporary sources, and used contemporary language, costumes and staging; and like van Hove, Shakespeare had his own theatre company – a genuine theatre company of permanent actors, unlike most so-called theatre companies in Australia.

The history plays weren’t written as a single artistic cycle or in narrative chronological order, although they are often performed that way. Richard II, the two parts of Henry IV and Henry V were written later in Shakespeare’s career than the three parts of Henry VI and Richard III (much like the Star Wars movies) and this is reflected in their respective dramaturgy, language and content. There’s a lot more onstage violence in the earlier tetralogy, while in the later cycle the language becomes more expressive and individuated, the characters more complex, and the dramatic conflict more internal rather than external (sadly more or less the opposite is true for the Star Wars movies).

Performing the plays in narrative order thus has the effect of marking a kind of historical, psychological and (to some extent) artistic regression, partly offset by the fact that in the earlier cycle there’s a significant artistic leap from Henry VI to Richard III in terms of the central character, who is arguably Shakespeare’s first great leading role. Broadly speaking, Kings of War describes the decline from a golden age of more courageous and chivalrous but also more complex and conflicted heroes ­motivated primarily by concern for the state (but sometimes weighed down by their own conscience) to one of weaker or more ruthless anti-heroes driven by revenge, resentment, envy, fear and the naked desire for power. The parallels with the contemporary world are obvious.

Van Hove’s production makes a convincing case for this overarching narrative. The discrepancy in language between the earlier and later plays is largely overcome by the translation to Dutch (and back into English surtitles – but not into Shakespeare’s original text); and the dramaturgical difference between the two cycles is reduced by the adaptation and editing of the text and by the staging. Almost all the violence (and a good deal of the action, including key speeches) takes place offstage, where it is captured on video and projected on a screen above the stage and surtitles (which thus become like movie subtitles). The stage itself represents a kind of vast open-plan office or war-room (which at times becomes a family living-room), with a smaller upstage annex (as in a classic Elizabethan theatre) for dramatic entrances and exits; this also harbours a glass display-case containing the crown and various other symbolic props (including a syringe which is the chief murder weapon, referencing both state executions and extra-judicial assassinations today). Above the stage and to the right of the screen is a gallery for the musicians: four trombone players, one of whom doubles as a DJ; the trombone players also occasionally enter the acting space, as does a counter-tenor who also haunts the action. Whenever the actors exit the stage, they are tracked by a cameraman along what appears to be a long white passageway with ninety-degree turns that resembles a hospital corridor. Of course much of this footage is pre-shot and edited into the content that appears onscreen; an illusion of continuity is maintained by having the actors (and cameraman) occasionally pass a doorway in the upstage wall of the annex.

The dialectic between what occurs onstage and offstage/onscreen (either live or pre-recorded) is the most fascinating aspect of this production. The screen is a portal granting access to the ‘corridors of power’; but this is not only a secret space for ‘backstage’ machinations (political scheming, sexual encounters, murders) but also a virtual space for public announcements and addresses (such as Henry V’s battle speeches) as well as an internal psychic space for images, dreams and hallucinations (parties, battles, corpses, ghosts, and an extraordinary vision of the pious and unworldly Henry VI trying to shepherd a flock of sheep). The action in this secret/virtual/inner space is staged and shot in an even more minimalist way; despite the illusion of continuity between stage and screen, there’s no attempt at realism but on the contrary a Brechtian ‘foregrounding of the device’ in the form of the roving cameraman and a (similarly Brechtian) use of stylised actions and images (in particular when it comes to death and killing).

The action onstage on the other hand is (for the most part) remarkably undramatic, subdued and even static (in fact more like the action one would expect to see on a TV screen). There are even some remarkable sequences when the stage is empty (but fully lit) while all the action and dialogue is taking place offstage/onscreen. This is facilitated by meticulous blocking, timing, scenography, videography and sound, but also by a superb ensemble cast who (for the most part) restrict themselves to a level of naturalism familiar to anyone who has watched the latest Scandi-noir on TV. Performances are uniformly excellent, with a quality of relaxed intimacy and a degree of familiarity with and trust in the work, the director and each other that I associate with European ensemble companies but rarely see on Australian stages (or screens) where actors often look as if they are acting in a bubble or auditioning for their next job. Standout performances include Hans Kesting as Richard III, and the women in the cast (Helene Devos as Katharina in Henry V and Lady Anne in Richard III, Janni Goslinga as Margaret in Henry VI and Richard III, Chris Kietvelt as Eleanor of Gloucester in Henry VI and Elizabeth in Henry VI and Richard III, and Mareike Heebink as the Duchess of York in Richard III) who all make a strong case for the women in the plays doing their best to survive and thrive in a patriarchal world.

Overall I found the earlier scenes from Henry V less effective, perhaps because the original play depends more heavily on heightened language, with (ironically for a play that focuses so heavily on war) comparatively little dramatic conflict (except in the mind of Henry himself). This makes it in some respects Shakespeare’s most Marlovian play, and perhaps the one that speaks least to a contemporary audience, despite its exploration of the moral conundrums of war. An exception was the brilliant comedy of manners, misunderstandings, flirtation and power-play when Henry woos Katharina in French over a dinner table – a scene which only gained from being simultaneously translated via the surtitles.

However the production kicked into gear for me with Henry VI, which is less dependent on language, more plot-driven, and more closely resembles contemporary film and TV – and indeed the contemporary world, increasingly riven by non-state conflicts and actors, and populated by leaders increasingly devoid of ethics, competence or ‘character’.

The third and most significant gear-change came with Richard III. Hans Kesting invests Richard with a Keaton-like subtlety at the farthest remove from more typically extrovert performances. Physically his appearance and characterisation is highly restrained: one side of his pale melancholy mask-like face disfigured by a blood-stained birthmark; hair neatly shaved; dressed in a dark suit and tie like an undertaker; body held rigid with arms stiffly at his sides; and the merest suggestion of a hunchback. He walks, stands and sits mostly in profile, almost like a cartoon silhouette; his early soliloquies are delivered not to the audience but into a mirror leaning against a wall at the side of the stage, his face relayed in close-up on the video screen. When he finally turns and looks at the audience without speaking for the first time midway through the play the effect is shattering. Shortly afterwards he briefly emerges from his physical and textual frame, making imaginary phone calls to Trump and Putin, trying on the crown, pulling a Persian rug around himself as a cloak, tentatively capering around the stage, and assuming the clichéd posture and expression of a cripple – before quickly replacing crown and carpet and resuming his former physicality when someone enters. The effect is to heighten his sense of isolation, and to render his entire trajectory in the imaginary dimension of an anticipatory fantasy. Even the coronation scene with Buckingham (played by Aus Griedanus Jnr as another outsider, as dishevelled and disingenuous as Steve Bannon) is performed as a mocking rehearsal for the actual event, which we never see. Richard’s climatic mental disintegration and death is a conceptual, videographic and staging coup, as he sits upstage with his back to the audience staring into the video screen, which projects his face morphing into those of his victims (the ‘ghosts’ of the original play). Then he rises and moves downstage in silhouette against the screen, which has now turned a saturated red, before finally fleeing upstage into the annex and offstage, where his image becoming visible for the last time onscreen running down the corridors towards the camera and finally disappearing off-screen, like a social-media-age celebrity politician finally consumed and absorbed into a black hole of virtual nothingness.

Not since van Hove’s versions of The Damned and The Crucible have I seen a production that speaks so directly to the political and psychological realities of our times; but his vision is bleaker than Shakespeare’s belief in political and spiritual restoration, Arthur Miller’s residual faith in personal redemption or even Visconti’s Marxist sense of justice finally being served. If Shakespeare’s history cycles (the second in particular) describe a (somewhat nostalgic) return to order, then van Hove’s is more like a single downward spiral into chaos and darkness.

*


A more consoling vision was offered the following night by Human Requiem, a staging of Brahms’s German Requiem (in the version for choir and piano duet rather than orchestra) performed by the Berlin Radio Choir (with soprano soloist Christina Gansch and baritone Konrad Jarnot) accompanied by pianists Philip Mayers and Angela Gassenhuber and directed by Jochen Standig with choreographer Sasha Waltz.

The work was staged in the Ridley Centre at the Adelaide Showground – a large featureless barn of a space (with a cork floor perhaps installed to dampen the acoustics) which was in many respects ideal for what took place. There was no designated stage, auditorium or seating for the choir or the audience; the former moved more or less freely through the space and the audience, while we moved, stood, sat or lay down (again more or less freely) ourselves. The performance thus became a kind of immersive, minimalist hybrid concert-performance-work – a low-church or non-denominational act of communion answering to our aesthetic and spiritual need for collective contemplation and participation in an increasingly secular, specialised, divided, atomised and technologically mediated world.

The work itself is something of a paradox in terms of its textual and musical content, reflecting the paradoxical qualities of Brahms himself as a classical-romantic composer with somewhat idiosyncratic humanist-religious views (in turn broadly reflective of the German Protestant sacred musical tradition epitomised by his precursor Bach). Written relatively early in his career, it features a German language libretto drawn from Luther’s translation of the Scripture (chiefly the Psalms, Gospels, Epistles and Revelations) which largely eschews any mention of Christ, his redemption or other distinguishing features of Christian dogma. Brahms himself was typically (and in this respect more classically than romantically) discrete about more personal motivations, but the work may have been inspired by the death of his mother in the year he began composing the work.

Musically much of the material in the 7-movement score derives from a single rising three-note motif first announced by the 4-part choir; while each movement mingles choral and solo passages so that the latter seem to arise and then fall away and become reabsorbed into the choir again (unlike the more sharply defined arias and choruses of traditional requiems or other sacred works). This sense of rising and falling, and of ever-shifting contrapuntal perspective, is characteristic of Brahms and accounts for the physical sensation of rocking and the emotional feeling of longing and consolation that runs through his work, as well as the formal-intellectual objectivity that frames it (in poetry Keats springs to mind by way of comparison). More particularly, there’s a recurring pattern of the individual (voice, instrument, human soul) in relation to the trans-individual (choir, collective, world-spirit) that is not one of leading and following (Mozart) or struggle and resolution (Beethoven) but rather of separation followed by union, blending and dissolution (which as Schönberg recognized makes Brahms every bit as ‘modern’ as his ostensible rival Wagner).

The effect of the work’s immersive staging is thus to reinforce this sense of a multiplicity of perspectives, of separation and dissolution, and above all of inclusion and participation, in a work that Brahms himself described as ‘German’ only because of its use of language rather than any incipient nationalism, and which he therefore also described as ‘ein menschliches Requiem’.

The most thrilling moment for me was the opening of the work, when the opening chords on the piano began to softly resound from the centre of the space (surrounded by the milling crowd) and the choir (scattered through the audience and visually indistinguishable in casual clothes) began to move and sing. I found myself at times inclined to move and follow individual singers and at other times content to stand still and contemplate them as they moved towards me and then passed me by, or paused in mutual contemplation for a moment before moving on. 

I found some of the later, more ‘staged’ moments less effective in comparison. These including some rather artificial groupings around the central piano or on a raised dais along one edge of the space; the isolation and raising of one (female) performer’s body above the heads of the others, carrying her through the crowd to the dais and then forming a mourning group around her supine, Christ-like (or perhaps maternal) form; and in the penultimate movement of the work (‘Den wir haben hier keine bleibende Statt’) the surprise entrance of children rolling out carpets along a central strip of the floor, followed by a slightly awkward herding of the audience to either side, after which the choir ran as if panic-stricken up and down the central carpet, until the baritone made his dramatic Evangelical entry (‘Siehe, ich sage euch ein Geheimnis’) on a balcony above the space. On the other hand I found the untethering and use by the singers of rope-suspended wooden swings for the three-quarter-time lullaby of the central movement (‘Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen’) – followed by the glorious soprano solo that opens the fifth movement (‘Ihr habt nur Traurigkeit’) – a lovely physical accompaniment to Brahms’s lilting rhythms and melodies. Such moments however seemed a little contrived, illustrative, sentimental or even ‘performative’ (as well as being more of a challenge for the singers) in comparison with the more subtle, free-flowing, spontaneous and organic movement and interaction that opened and closed the work. Indeed as the singers surrounded us for the final movement (‘Selig sind die Toten’) I found myself lying back and closing my eyes, surrendering to the music itself and the delicious proximity and randomly ‘found’ perspective of their voices: an experience that could never be captured in a conventional concert, let alone listening to a recording.

In sum, then, I found Human Requiem a thrilling musical journey and an appropriately messy, imperfect performance-work for a messy, imperfect world.


*

I haven’t seen Bangarra Dance Theatre’s work for many years, but Bennelong felt stylistically, emotionally and politically deeper, darker and more dangerous than I remembered.

Choreography and staging have all the hallmarks of the company’s house-style: in particular Steven Page’s smooth hybrid of traditional and contemporary dance; the bodies and physical idioms of individual dancers who have a history with the company; and a signature blend of sound, lighting, set and costume design that is undeniably beautiful but at times risks becoming ‘beautified’ and thus commodified for cross-cultural consumption.

Nevertheless this aesthetic is given a new twist by several new or recent collaborators – and perhaps by an artistic, personal and political evolution on the part of Page himself, who has now been artistic director of the company for over twenty years. Nick Schlieper’s increasingly incisive lighting, Jacob Nash’s iconic set design, and composer Steve Francis’s complex montage of original and found music and sound, including sung and spoken voice, all support and enrich a story that is if anything more tragic than the one described in Kings of War. Dramaturg and writer Alana Valentine previously collaborated with Page on Patyegarang, another narrative work which also focussed on a key figure of cross-cultural collaboration in the early years of settlement: the young Eora woman who befriended the soldier and linguist William Dawes and collaborated with him on the first Eora-English dictionary. Bennelong tells the story about a more divisive figure, and here Valentine’s contribution includes powerful spoken-word poems and verbal fragments which are incorporated into Steve Francis’ soundscape and effectively echo across history. One looped sequence repeatedly questions Bennelong’s status as a ‘realist’, ‘idealist’, ‘collaborator’, ‘victim’ or ‘survivor’ – terms which could equally apply to any one of us today. Even more effective for me was a later poem about physical and spiritual dismemberment in the context of the stealing of Aboriginal body parts.

Page remarks in his program note that it’s now almost two years since his brother David passed away, and has also commented on his feeling of kinship with Bennelong as a pioneer who walked the often difficult path between two worlds. Beyond this, for me the work responds to a decisive moment in our shared history in terms of the possibilities and limits of collaboration and reconciliation: a moment defined by the recent Statement from the Heart at Uluru, the recommendation by the National Constitutional Council for the establishment of an indigenous voice to Parliament, and its out-of-hand rejection by the Turnbull government – a rejection resoundingly denounced by Noel Pearson (in some respects a contemporary Bennelong-figure) who thereby arguably regained some of the moral authority Turnbull had lost.

Bennelong remains an emblematic and enigmatic figure in white and Aboriginal Australian culture. I still remember my parents returning from the Sydney Opera House opening ceremony at Bennelong Point in 1973, and my father describing in awe-struck tones the staged appearance of Bennelong’s descendant Ben Blakeney atop one of the white-tiled sails to welcome the audience along with Queen Elizabeth II (who was in attendance) – much as his ancestor had appeared, been welcomed and granted royal audience at the court of her forefather George III. More specifically, Bennelong’s complex relationship with Governor Philip and the colonists – including the former’s initial capture and escape, the ambush and revenge-spearing of Philip by Bennelong’s fellow Eora warriors, the subsequent friendship between the two men, Bennelong’s learning of English and granting of an Aboriginal name to Philip (who in return built him a hut at Bennelong Point), his voyage to England and reception in London, his return to Sydney Cove and role as advisor to Governor Hunter, his physical and psychological deterioration and death (in part attributable to alcohol), and the subsequent decimation of his people by smallpox and later deliberate killings, along with the effects of land-clearing and dispossession – made him a contentious figure, even derogatively branded as a ‘collaborator’, especially when viewed in contrast with the more openly aggressive contemporary Eora warrior and resistance leader Pemulwuy (impressively embodied in this production by Luke Currie-Richardson).

Bennelong begins gently and wistfully with the birth and initiation of its titular hero (Beau Dean Riley Smith, a fine actor-dancer with a soft, almost feminine body, whose portrayal of Bennelong tends to present him as more of a hapless victim than a sophisticated negotiator). This scene takes places beneath the aegis of set designer Jacob Nash’s huge suspended totemic ring (which is later replaced by the more typically European shape of a rectangular doorway), and accompanied by composer Steve Francis’s evocative score, which includes the siren-like voice of a woman singing a melody derived (as Francis told me later) from the notation of an unknown Eora song Bennelong himself apparently sang in a London drawing-room. Things becomes more playful and parodic with the arrival of Philip (Daniel Riley) and the colonists (despite the violence of Bennelong’s capture and the retaliatory attack on Philip), culminating in Bennelong’s departure by ship for Britain – the cast donning tricorns and military jackets and dancing a perverse pantomime version of a sailor’s hornpipe. This sense of picaresque becomes even more surreal when Bennelong and his companion Yemmerrawanne (Yolanda Lowatta) arrive in England and are feted by London society: a Hogarthian scene of revelry accompanied by a distorted treatment of Haydn’s contemporaneous ‘Surpise’ Symphony. Things become more macabre with the death of Yemmarrawanne in London, the smallpox epidemic back at Sydney Cove, the massacres and the requisition of Aboriginal body parts to scientific and cultural institutions back in Britain. Here Page’s choreography becomes more akin to contemporary post-Bauschian dance theatre, with a wrapped body (Tyrel Dulvaire) carried onstage by two dancers and revealed before beginning its own compelling dance of death, while harrowing words from Valentine’s poem cut through the soundscape. A haunting sequence follows in which Bennelong dances with a series of women before attempting to rape one of them (Yolanda Lowatta in another fierce performance) and being driven back by a woman elder (Elma Kris, a magnificent presence throughout the show) – a sequence which acknowledges the ongoing issue of domestic violence in Australian communities, black and white. Finally the show ends on a grimly ironic note as a bewildered and befuddled Bennelong (damaged by alcohol and anomie) is slowly and systematically walled-in by dancers bringing on silver-painted building-slabs and immuring him in a kind of tomb: a grim image of his ongoing treatment at the hands of history.

There’s something about these emblematic figures and stories from the early years of settlement that reminds me of the Old Testament: their foundational impact, their ‘unfinished’ nature, their moral complexity, the fact that they’re about colonisation, and the way they go on resonating today.

*


Akram Khan’s Xenos is purportedly his last solo performance as a dancer. It was commissioned by 14–18 NOW, a UK arts program for the centenary of WW1, and commemorates the experience of 4 million non-white colonial – and in particular 1.5 million Indian – soldiers in the so-called Great War.

I didn’t read the event program or know anything about the show’s provenance before seeing it, and despite the copious amounts of mud onstage, a voiceover early in the piece (apparently quoting an Indian sepoy’s letter home) stating that ‘this is not a war, it’s the ending of the world’, and even a song from the trenches, somehow I didn’t immediately make the historical connection. Instead I saw a work about personal and collective trauma and the era we live in – one of renewed racism and nationalism (xenos of course is Greek for ‘foreigner’), militarism and the looming catastrophe of climate change. Conscious that it was Khan’s last solo performance, I also saw it as a very personal work, like Stephen Page’s Bennelong. In the case of Khan, this impression was also conveyed by the body, face and inner intensity of this extraordinary director-choreographer-performer.

Khan’s heritage, training and experience as a London-born British-Bangladeshi artist (who first came to world prominence as a teenager in Peter Brook’s Mahabharata) has equipped him with a unique inter-cultural artistic identity and understanding of performance traditions, including classical Indian kathak and contemporary dance (he also worked with Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s X-Group Project). The influence of kathak is immediately evident as soon as Khan enters (backwards from the wings, hauling a length of thick rope behind him) in his costume, which includes traditional small bells tied to his ankles (he violently removes these during the show, along with other elements of clothing, as if they represent as much a form of cultural bondage as a sense of identity or belonging). Khan’s movement-language throughout the show also reflects his kathak training, with its emphasis on rapid footwork (heightened by the rattling bells), dazzling turns and spins, flowing arms and gestures, strong upper-body presentation and above all, intensely focused eyes – though this physicality, too, and the sense of identity that goes with it, begins to disintegrate in the course of the show. More broadly, kathak involves as much acting as dancing, and is a strongly narrative-based form, originally dedicated to stories from Indian mythology and epics (like the Mahabharata itself) – though here, too, there is a sense in which the ‘story’ of the work gradually becomes more and more incommunicable because of its traumatic nature.

I found the show’s opening (perhaps intentionally) casual and even somewhat unfocussed, with two Indian musicians – a traditional singer (Aditya Prakash) and percussionist/konnakol vocalist (B.C. Manjunath)– sitting on the floor singing and playing while the audience filed in and continued talking loudly. The lack of focus wasn’t helped by the venue, Her Majesty’s, with its flat ground-floor seating obscuring a clear view of the raised stage-floor; nor by the initial stage set-up and design (by Mirella Weingarten) which included some randomly scattered furniture, rugs and objects, a swing, and then (more promisingly) behind them and extending across the stage a solid raised wave-like structure painted in streaks of dark-grey and rust-red like oxidised iron.

The entrance of Khan and his focussed energy immediately transformed the space; about ten minutes into the show, an ominous industrial sound-score (by Vincenzo Lamagna) began to invade it; the two musicians exited; the lighting (designed by Michael Hulls) began to dim; and all the moveable stage décor (which like Khan himself was tethered by ropes) was slowly and inexorably dragged upstage and disappeared over the crest of the wave into the maw of the abyss.

The visual and emotional journey of the work was supported by that of the lighting and music: shortly after the initial set transformation, the stage went dark, and a lit aperture opened above it, revealing a balcony with the original musicians now part of an industrial jazz-rock band including an amplified violinist, double bass player vocalist and baritone saxophonist. Later musical fragments in the sound-score included the WW1 song ‘Hanging on the Old Barbed Wire’ and an electronically treated version of the ‘Lacrimosa’ from Mozart’s Requiem.

This sense of disruption and dislocation – indeed of cataclysm and even apocalypse – continued throughout the show, providing it with both form and theme. Not making the WW1 connection, I related to it variously to genocide, the refugee crisis and even climate change, partly because of the black dirt that Khan first smeared on his costume and later his face and body. Afterwards I realized it represented mud from the trenches, but at the time it made me think overwhelmingly of carbon, especially when what looked like lumps of coal finally came rattling down the face of the wave and across the stage (on closer inspection after the show these turned out to be pine-cones – which of course have their own WW1 association for Australians because of the Battle of Lone Pine).

Beyond any specific historical, cultural or contemporary references however, the work affected me at a visceral level – much like a Samuel Beckett play that borders on abstraction. Perhaps this is one of the achievements of a post-colonial performance mode that finds a new trans-cultural, trans-disciplinary and even trans-narrative form.

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The next morning I attended a ‘Breakfast with Papers’ discussion at the pop-up floating Palais venue on the Torrens, hosted by Tom Wright and featuring Palestinian director-playwright Amir Nizar Zuabi, Melbourne journalist-commentator Guy Rundle, South Australian Museum Head of Humanities John Carty and pianist-writer Anna Goldsworthy. The conversation revolved around the theme of territorial conflict – Palestine, the South Australian and Darebin elections, and the issue of Aboriginal reconciliation in Australia. Tom Wright asked John Carty about the fate of the Museum’s collection of Aboriginal artefacts (the largest in Australia), and the difficult issue of repatriation was broached but not resolved. He then invited Guy Rundle to comment on the issue of indigenous constitutional recognition, and Rundle struggled to respond and eventually confessed that he didn’t know what to say and didn’t want to comment without having at least one Aboriginal person on the panel. It was a telling moment, and the first time I’ve ever seen Guy lost for words.

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The final two performances I saw at the Festival were more intimate works at the Space Theatre. Both were from Palestine, and continued the themes of colonialism, land and inheritance, trauma and consolation.

Azza is a play about mourning and reparation. Writer-director Amir Nizar Zuabi wrote the play for his company ShiberHur (the Arabic words mean ‘an inch of freedom’) in order to understand the traditional Palestinian three-day mourning ritual of azza (performed separately by men and women) in preparation for the death of his own father (who in fact died before they started rehearsals).

Six male actors perform the work in simple contemporary clothes on a bare stage with a stack of green plastic chairs. These form the only set apart from a large awning of mesh fabric above the stage that looks like a sunshade. This diffuses the otherworldly green overhead wash that is virtually the only state apart from a few subtle shifts in side lighting (designed by Muaz Jubeh).

Using simple choreography (by Samar Haddad King) the actors rearrange the chairs and themselves between short scenes of dialogue or storytelling that slowly build up a picture of the deceased, his village and his two sons. The scenes are also interspersed and occasionally underscored by passages of a capella singing by the actors (composed by Faraj Suleiman).

The text is performed in Arabic (with English surtitles) but apart from this and the narrative setting, the costumes and set mean that the action onstage could be taking place almost anywhere. This sense of familiarity is heightened by the acting style, which is mostly naturalistic; the emotional behaviour of the men, which is mostly indirect to the point of avoidance; and the core of the story, which concerns two brothers (Amer Hlehel and Henry Andrawes) whose rivalry more or less repeats the story of the prodigal son and other Scriptural forebears. The exception in acting style and behaviour is that of Khalifa Natour, who as well as being one of the mourners also plays a kind of Death-figure who repeatedly emerges from the group and summons people to follow him.

I find myself thinking more and more about this work as time goes by, partly because of its imaginative simplicity. Like Kings of War, it’s an ensemble work about family, but featured at least one outstanding performance for me in Amer Hlehel as the older brother. Even more than Bennelong or Xenos, it’s also deeply personal work, which makes no apparent reference to Palestinian history or politics; but it has a lot to say about both (and much else besides) in its subtle treatment of masculinity, rivalry and what Freud called ‘the narcissism of small differences’.

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Taha is an even more intimate work than Azza, but covers a broader historical and political canvas. A one-man show written and performed by Amer Hlehel (who played the older brother in Azza) – and again directed by Amir Nizar Zuabi, it takes the form of a first-person monologue and tells the story of Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali, who left his village for a Lebanese refugee camp with his family during the Israeli bombardment in 1948 when he was 17, but subsequently returned to Nazareth, where he lived until his death.

The set design (by Ashraf Hanna) is almost as minimal as Azza and consists of a yellow square on the floor, a wooden bench and a briefcase. The show is lit once again by Muez Jubeh: no green wash this time, just a subtle but intricate dance of side lighting that follows the actor’s movements up and down, inside and around the edges of the square. The tight staging enforces our sense of the poet’s essential solitude, but also evokes a larger sense of occupied territory and exile.

Unlike Azza, Hlehel delivers the text in English, except for the poems, which are recited in Arabic with English surtitles. This oscillation reflects Taha’s own linguistic sophistication (he taught himself English as part of his self-education), but also a poet’s heightened consciousness of language itself.

I found Hlehel’s performance all the more remarkable for having seen him in Azza the day before. Of necessity, his portrait of Taha is a little more demonstrative – his subtly aged appearance, his anxious body language, his voice a little more projected – as he connects with audience directly and embodies a man who is also a kind of a performer and whose story covers a broad gamut of emotions and moods from joy to sorrow and from comedy to tragedy. For me his great achievement was to have the audience connect with Taha as a vulnerable fellow human being: receiving a letter telling him that the girl he loves and left behind in the refugee camp has married someone else, or getting so nervous before going onstage for his first poetry reading in London that he gets his foot caught in the strap of his briefcase and then can’t find his poems inside it. And finally, there is the poem he reads, about revenge, which ends the show, and reveals so much about exile and solitude, and the difficulty of healing, and of forgiveness.

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At times ... I wish
I could meet in a duel
the man who killed my father and razed our home, expelling me
into
a narrow country.
And if he killed me,
I’d rest at last,
and if I were ready—
I would take my revenge!

But if it came to light, when my rival appeared, that he had a mother waiting for him,
or a father who’d put
his right hand over
the heart’s place in his chest whenever his son was late even by just a quarter-hour for a meeting they’d set— then I would not kill him, even if I could.

Likewise ... I
would not murder him
if it were soon made clear
that he had a brother or sisters
who loved him and constantly longed to see him. Or if he had a wife to greet him
and children who
couldn’t bear his absence
and whom his gifts would thrill.
Or if he had
friends or companions,
neighbors he knew
or allies from prison
or a hospital room,
or classmates from his school ... asking about him
and sending him regards.

But if he turned
out to be on his own—
cut off like a branch from a tree— without a mother or father,
with neither a brother nor sister, wifeless, without a child,
and without kin or neighbours or friends, colleagues or companions,
then I’d add not a thing to his pain within that aloneness—
not the torment of death,
and not the sorrow of passing away. Instead I’d be content
to ignore him when I passed him by
on the street—as I
convinced myself
that paying him no attention
in itself was a kind of revenge.