Menu Sian Prior

Writer, Broadcaster, Singer, MC & Teacher

Melbourne Festival Fare and Forthcoming Gigs [October 10]

As the 2008 Melbourne Festival draws to a close, it’s worth mentioning some highlights – and some lowlights.

Turkish ney-player (a long wooden flute-like instrument) Kudsi Erguner performed at the BMW Edge with an ensemble of virtuoso musicians in a concert called Sufi Invocations. The highlight for me was hearing the two male vocalists (or ‘nightingales’, as Erguner described them) whose voices, both individually and in unison, made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. It reminded me of being in Istanbul and hearing the Moslem prayer-calls echoing over the city, with those distorted, elongated vowels and ornamented scales dipping up and down between the extreme top and the very bottom of their vocal range. Soothing and exquisite.

Oddly enough, it also reminded in moments of Liza Lim’s opera The Navigator, which played to bemused audiences in the Playhouse of The Arts centre. She, too, employed virtuoso singers, operatically trained in this instance, but required to distort their vowels in extraordinary ways to deliver Patricia Sykes’ text. Frankly, i didn’t think Barrie Kosky’s dildo-ridden direction worked, but it wasn’t entirely his fault. The text lacked drama and a coherent narrative, and i suspect this musical work should have been presented as a concert performance rather than a staged theatrical production. I am a huge fan of the Elision Ensemble, and of Liza Lim’s ground-breaking compositions, but i found it hard to enjoy this show.

STO Union’s two-person work ‘7 Important Things’ was a nostalgic and vaguely therapeutic narration of one man’s life story. Aided and abetted by Canadian director Nadia Ross, George Acheson re-lives his experiences growing up a baby-boomer in an era of failed utopianism. Ross is playful with the form – there’s everything from TV-style chat show moments to mask-work and silent disco-dancing in this show – but it felt, in the end, rather slight.

Speaking of Canadians, Book of Longing, a new work by American composer Phillip Glass based on the poetry of Leonard Cohen, was a moving and loving homage to the Canadian songwriter and artist. Four excellent musical theatre-style vocalists delivered the songs with clear-as-a-bell diction, allowing us to relish the craft of Cohen’s sad, sexy, witty poetry. Can’t wait for Cohen’s Australian tour (late Jan, early Feb 2009 – supported by Paul Kelly!)

Wendy Houston’s Desert Island Dances put the ‘playful’ back into ‘post-modern’ with a funny, low-key and self-refllexive one-woman dance work about… about… oh, everything, really. There was a chalk board on which the English performer traced an imaginary graph of her audience’s emotional response to the show, a giant wooden box with wheels in which she rolled around the small stage, and lots of talking. I loved this performance, and i’d love to see anything else she does, quite frankly.

And what a treat to see Melbourne playwright and director Jenny Kemp’s latest work, Kitten, which premiered at the Malthouse Theatre. Three women play the one character, ‘Kitten’, who is having some kind of frightening manic episode, following the drowning death of her lover. Natasha Herbert and Margaret Mills, both longtime collaborators with Kemp, were simply astonishing in the way they captured the breath-taking charisma of someone in that state. A more accessible play, in some ways, than many of Kemp’s previous works, Kitten left me in tears, and yet also elated. Definitely a Festival highlight.

Forthcoming SP gigs – I’ll be performing with Paul Kelly in Perth for his A – Z gigs at The Quarry (November 4 – 7). I’ll be singing and playing clarinet, and Dan Kelly will be playing along on guitar as well.