Menu Sian Prior

Writer, Broadcaster, Singer, MC & Teacher

Culture Club reviews October 10th [October 11]

I’ve seen three brand new Australian works in the last couple of weeks, including two new operas and a new Australian play.

‘The Beast’ is a new comedy written by Eddie Perfect (who wrote ‘Shane Warne The Musical’) and produced by the Melbourne Theatre Company. The plot in brief: a group of three male friends are stranded on a boat after a cyclone and something terrible happens on that boat but for most of the play we’re not sure what. Move forward a year and they’ve all moved to the country with their partners for a tree-change. One of them, though, is clearly still traumatised by whatever happened on that boat. The three couples decide to have a dinner party for which they will buy and slaughter a fatted calf. Not just any old fatted calf, but a free-range organic gluten-free GM-free totally ethical extremely cute fatted calf. Mayhem ensues.

At times this play is wincingly hilarious. Perfect has a keen, mean eye for the pretentiousness, faddishness and self-satisfaction of contemporary middle class Australian life. He sends us up mercilessly. At times this play reminded me of ‘Kath and Kim’ except that it wasn’t the outer suburban Aussies being targeted, it was the inner suburban and/or tree- and sea-changing Aussies, and Perfect is harder on his targets, less fond of us than the ‘Kath and Kim’ team are of their targets.

There are lots of memorable one-liners in ‘The Beast’. In one scene a couple is talking about raising chickens and selling their own eggs – by bicycle – and one says, ‘Things taste better when they’re delivered by bike’. In another scene one of the characters has been bragging about good his home grown organic carrots are and someone says to him ‘You’re a guy who likes what carrots make you look like more than you like carrots. Can’t you just grow carrots and shut up about them?’

It’s also a play about the ridiculous competitive dynamic that can develop within groups of men. There is one alpha male on this friendship circle and two men who are intimidated by him and their attempts to assert their status are almost unbearably funny. The female characters are just as awful as the male ones, including one bossy alpha female, one totally passive bullied one and a third one who’s a drunk (and is also the most likeable character of the lot). In fact it’s quite hard to like any of these characters but that’s not the point. We’re there to laugh at them, not like them.

There are a couple of ways in which I think this play doesn’t quite reach its full potential. The structure is a bit wobbly towards the end. There are few false ending moments. We know there needs to be the ‘reveal’ of what happened on the stranded boat but it takes a while to get there. So the text could be pared back a bit I think. In some ways, too, I found myself wishing Perfect had gone even a little bit further with the vicious satire. Sometimes it felt like he went right to the brink of allowing something really appalling to be said or to happen, and then pulled back. Some of the MTC’s more traditional audience members might think the opposite; that he’s gone too far. I suspect the company has been a bit worried about how their subscribers would handle this play. They have been generously offering free tickets to drama students to encourage more young people to come along.

I thought the direction by Iain Sinclair was brilliant. He has pushed every laugh to the limit, and although I won’t name anyone in particular in the cast of seven, they were uniformly excellent. They’re all fantastic comic performers and the play felt really well-rehearsed, so that the comic timing worked beautifully. I laughed my socks off and I’m definitely happy to recommend ‘The Beast’, on at Southbank Theatre until 9th November.

On a very different note, I’ve also been to see ‘Turbulence’, a brand new work from Chambermade Opera. It’s part of their ongoing living room series of new Australian works. I’ve seen other productions in this series performed in modernist mansions beside the Yarra River, in luxury apartments in South Melbourne, and in grand old homes in the eastern suburbs, but this one is being performed in the living room of a very modest Northcote apartment. The venue happens to suit the subject matter of the opera very well. The room is long and narrow and crowded, so it’s not hard to believe that we the audience are sitting inside an aeroplane which is about to experience (you guessed it) turbulence.

Having said that, this is not a simulated flight ‘reality’ kind of theatre show. It’s actually incredibly abstract and at times quite bewildering. To briefly describe it for you, the audience of about 25 people is led up some stairs and into the living room and seated in tight rows by a group of what look like flight attendants. We’re given hot towels and then a series of small fans start whirring (all miked up) and the amplified sound they make as they power up is just like a plane taking off. Then there’s an ongoing loud rumble of noise, and from the back row where I was sitting, it seemed like nothing else was happening for quite a long time.

Eventually I realised that someone seated in the front row was making strange noises, and that she was one of the performers, the singer Deborah Kayser. Unfortunately it was hard to hear from the back row, so there is bit of a sound design problem with this production. Her clicks and hisses and growls eventually turn into musical notes and eventually into sung text. Then another performer stands up from amongst the audience and she’s the actor Anneli Bjorasen. She begins speaking lines of poetic text in dialogue with Deborah Kayser’s sung text. There are also sound effects in the mix, including the sound of a fretful baby, snippets of radio broadcasts in foreign languages, and snippets of other music, so it all combines into a dense multi-layered and engaging soundscape.

But it is all very abstract. You have to give up looking for a clear narrative or expecting something to ‘happen’ or waiting for everything to suddenly ‘make sense’, and instead just sit back and enjoy the ride (pardon the pun). Towards the end of the performance there’s a loud bang and some smoke effects, but the night i saw it the audience wasn’t sure whether the opera had actually finished and had to be prompted to applaud.

The composer of ‘Turbulence’ is Juliana Hodkinson, the libretto is by Cynthia Troup, and it has been directed by Chambermade’s outgoing Artistic Director David Young. The work could almost be described as performance art, it is so still most of the time. The highlight of this production for me is Deborah Kayser’s voice. This singer is a bit of national cultural treasure, one of our pre-eminent female performers of contemporary composition, with an astonishing vocal technique. It’s not a huge operatic voice, but there it is incredibly flexible and there is a lovely clarity to the sound. Towards the end of ‘Turbulence’ there is a ‘duet’ between Deborah and a pre-recorded electronic keyboard melody and it’s quite mesmerising.

The text of the libretto is printed in the program and it is wonderfully poetic, all about giving birth and experiencing motherhood and the love of a child, but you may struggle to hear it in the space.

If you’re interested in the cutting edge of opera (or music drama, perhaps) and you enjoy experiencing performances in unusual spaces, it’s worth checking out ‘Turbulence’. But if you like a hummable melody and a linear narrative and a dying consumptive soprano at the end of your operas, this one might not be for you. ‘Turbulence’ is on until Saturday October 12th, then will be performed in a living room in Mount Macedon on November 2nd and 3rd .

And finally, I’ve also been to see ‘The Magic Pudding’, a new Australian children’s opera commissioned by Victorian Opera based on the famous Norman Lindsay children’s book. It has just finished its premiere season at the Malthouse but it’s doing a regional tour to Wodonga, Mildura, Shepparton, Ballarat and Warragul from 22nd October to 12th November. The shows has been composed by Calvin Bowman and the libretto is by Anna Goldsworthy, the musician and author of the very popular memoir ‘Piano Lessons’.

There is lots to love about this production, including the nostalgia hit, for those of us who grew up on the Norman Lindsay book. And it’s fairly faithful to the book, as far as I can tell. The story is all about Albert the grumpy magic pudding who never gets any smaller, no matter how much you eat, and the pudding thieves who keep trying to steal Albert from his owners, the koala Bunyip Bluegum, the penguin Sam Sawnoff and Bill Barnacle the sailor.

Albert is a puppet in this production and spends most of his time attached to the feet of the young performer who sings the Albert role, Jeremy Kleeman. This was one of the most successful elements of the production, I thought. You are very happy to believe that this puppet is a pudding with a well-rounded character. I also loved the fact that there’s a children’s chorus in the production, although I think more use could have made of them. This could be tricky, though, because when the production has its regional tour it will be picking up local children’s choirs to perform in each different place, so I guess it had to be kept simple.

I loved the design of this show, both set and costumes. The singers look like they’ve stepped straight out of the pages of the book, and the backdrop is a painted backlit scene of lovely old gum trees. And the direction by Cameron Menzies is great. He’s a director with a natural comedic sensibility and he’s given the performers lots of little dance moves to keep the energy up. At times that was necessary because the language in the original book was quite complex and wordy, and Anna Goldsworthy seems to have been quite faithful to the original text. So it’s not always easy to follow the words, especially when you add the distorting effect of the operatic voice into the mix. Some children might struggle to know what’s going on at times. Goldsworthy could have taken some more liberties and simplified some of the writing.

Another less successful element for me was having a ‘narrator’ character, a cockatoo who has to both speak and sing her lines, played by Kirilie Blythman. I’m not sure a narrator was necessary in the text, and although the performer has a lovely singing voice, her speaking style was a bit declamatory and unengaging for my tastes. This character introduces whole opera, and she needs to drag us straight in so we care about what’s going to happen.

Overall, though, this production is a lovely way to introduce young children to opera as an engaging theatrical form.