Actéon opera review and Dust on the Shortbread dance review (Perth)

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 a 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 synchronised 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.

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.

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 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.

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 lens 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 psychological roots of some of the ills that afflict us, and perhaps even 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 Euridice, followed 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 sacrifice and suffering, 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 – also answers to deep psychological and social needs, and perhaps even 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 still 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?’

The production ran from September 12-15

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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.

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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’.

A week after seeing this show, images still haunt me.

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.

This production ran from September 11-22

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