Sian Prior

Writer, Broadcaster, Singer, MC & Teacher

Culture Club reviews, 774 ABC Melbourne, July 12th [July 13]

This week i’ve been to see a couple of shows, starting with ‘Briwyant’ at the Malthouse Theatre at Southbank. The first challenge with this show is working out what to call it. It involves contemporary dance but it’s not just a dance work. Nor is it ‘just’ theatre, although it involves acting and dialogue. It’s not just a multimedia event, though it involves video footage. And the set looks like a work of art. So here’s a stab: it’s a hybrid dance-theatre-multimedia work.

Awkward, isn’t it?

Anyway do labels really matter? Perhaps it’s more interesting to talk about what the show is like. This work has been directed by indigenous dancer and choreographer Vicki Van Hout, and choreographed by Vicki in collaboration with her six dancers (Henrietta Baird, Raghav Handa, Sean Marcs, Rosealee Pearson, Beau Dean Smith and Melinda Tyquin). Vicki Van Hout says it’s been inspired by an effect within traditional Yolngu painting of ‘the brilliant shimmer and shine of a pattern that seems to move before the eyes…’

It begins with the outlines of human faces and hands looming and pushing through a stretchy white scrim on the side of the stage – quite dramatic, quite grotesque images – and you could make all kinds of meanings for yourself from this scene – black performers trapped within a white culture?

Then Vicki stands in front of the scrim and tells a traditional indigenous story about a duck and a goanna, with the dancers moving around her, illustrating the story using bird and goanna-like dance movements. From there the work keeps shifting focus, ever changing – one minute it’s the abstract language of pure contemporary dance; the next minute three women are sitting inside a humpy having a conversation about borrowing money while they play a game of cards; the next, video footage is screened onto the walls of the humpy, and we hear an audio interview with a drag queen describing putting on his/her make-up. At another point in the performance an indigenous woman is being instructed (bullied) by a disembodied voice about where to put each limb on a kind of giant projected Twister game made of lines and dots.

There are also some mini-stories told in monologues by the performers, including one about going to a party and not getting drunk. I can’t say there’s a clear narrative to this work, but there are many brilliant, surprising and memorable images and sounds. In the end I decided that this show is closer to an art installation or to performance art, perhaps, than to a traditional theatre show.

‘Briwyant’ began life at the Performance Space in Sydney, where this kind of hybrid work (ignoring or blurring the boundaries between different art forms) is quite common. But I wondered what people who came to the Malthouse THEATRE expecting a THEATRE show, or even a contemporary dance show along the lines of what Bangarra does, would have made of it? Expectations sometimes matter a lot to your enjoyment of a performing arts production.

I enjoyed it, although I probably would have enjoyed it even more if I had stopped trying to make some kind of narrative ‘sense’ of it earlier on, and just let the sounds and movements and images wash over me.

But it was interesting to reflect on how the Malthouse Theatre program this season is trying a bit of everything. The last event in their 2012 season was a series of short opera works; before that there was the circus show Circa; before that, dance; before that, a text-based so-called ‘well-made play’; and next up, ‘Blood Wedding’, which involves the work of a Spanish poet and the music of Tim Rogers from You Am I. So Artistic Director Marion Potts is determinedly mixing it up in 2012, and I’m enjoying the ride.

Briwyant is on at The Malthouse Theatre at Southbank until July 14th.

This week i also went the opening night of Melbourne’s Opera’s latest production, ‘Cosi Fan Tutte’, at the Atheneum Theatre in Collins St.

This is one of Mozart’s sillier operas but also one of his most sublime, musically-speaking. It has my absolute favourite opera trio. ‘Soave Sia il Vento’ (May the wind be gentle) which i have performed several times, and i never tire of it.

Melbourne Opera is one of the smaller players in the Australian opera scene, but they are stayers. Somehow they keep on keeping on, producing shows on the smell of an oily rag, with scratch orchestras and limited budgets, and giving up-and-coming young singers a chance to try out substantial roles.

This production is directed by a highly experienced theatre and opea director, Suzanne Chaundy, and it shows. Chaundy has set the opera in 1960’s multicultural Australia, where two spunky and spoilt Italian-Australian sisters, Dorabella (mezzo-soprano Victoria Lambourn) and Fiordiligi (soprano Danielle Calder), are devastated when their boyfriends Guglielmo (baritone Phillip Calcagno) and Ferrando (tenor Roy Best) are called up to fight in Vietnam.

Except that they haven’t really been called up; it’s all part of a bet that the boys are having with an Italian café owner, Alfonso (baritone Roger Howell) that their girlfriends can’t be faithful. ‘Cosi fan tutte’, he tells them – ‘they’re all like that… ‘. So the boys pretend to go to war then come back disguised as Indians from the local hippie ashram and try to seduce each others girlfriends.

The direction in this show is detailed, playful and effective, and with the help of a witty colloquial translation into Australian-English, the setting is entirely believable. One of the most fun operatic roles Mozart ever wrote was that of Despina, the girls’ maid, and soprano Andrea Creighton practically steals the show here. Her Despina is a fag-smoking, cocktail-sipping, man-eating good-time girl who tries to teach the two sisters to be more worldly and have some fun before they hook up forever with their boyfriends. Creighton has brilliant comic timing, a relaxed stage presence and a thrilling light soprano voice.

There is some sloppiness in this production. The orchestra was not always in tune, nor in time with the singers, which is ultimately the responsibility of conductor Greg Hocking. And the tenor Roy Best was the weakest link in the cast; his voice is not as strong as the others, nor is his acting.

But Christina Logan-Bell has created an excellent set on a small budget, which transforms easily from a suburban Australian house and garden into an Italian café and an ashram.

So although i had some reservations about the musical details of the performance, overall it’s a good night at the opera.

‘Cosi Fan Tutte’ is on at the Atheneum Theatre in Collins St until July 18th, and there is also a performance at the Alexander Theatre at Monash University on July 31st.