Opera, Reviews, Stage, Theatre

Perth Festival reviews: Swan Lake/Loch na hEala, The Magic Flute

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Michael Keegan-Dolan/Teac Damsa, Swan Lake/Loch na hEala; Komische Oper Berlin/Barrie Kosky/1927, The Magic Flute

When my kids were little, I used to read to them from a storybook called Tales from the Ballet. It contained illustrated retellings of the plots from famous ballets, many of which were originally folk tales. I can’t speak for its effect on my kids, but it rekindled my own interest in ballet, which I had previously found an alienating artform. 

Irish choreographer, writer and director Michael Keegan-Dolan has been doing something similar for the past decade with his companies Fabulous Beast and now Teac Damsa (‘House of Dance’), reworking classical ballets such as Giselle, The Rite of Spring and Petroushka by returning them to their roots in folklore, folk-dance and folk-music, as well as enlivening them with contemporary stories, themes and staging. He’s particularly interested in reclaiming ballet for the people, but also in making political work about Ireland, and in paying attention to the dark side of human nature.  

Swan Lake/Loch na hEala is set in the Irish Midlands, and tells the story of Jimmy, a young unemployed Irishman living with his ageing mother Nancy in a rundown bothy on the edge of a lake and suffering from depression after the death of his father; his depression is exacerbated when the local council grants Nancy permission to demolish the bothy (which has been occupied by his father’s family for generations) and replace it with a new council house.

One night Jimmy goes down to the lake with his father’s gun to shoot himself (shades of Chekhov’s The Seagull) and encounters Fionnuala and her three sisters (Chekhov again), who have been transformed into swans after the local priest tried to rape Fionnuala, was interrupted by her little sisters and laid a curse on all four condemning them to be turned into animals if they told anyone what had happened.

Sub-plots involve Nancy trying to marry Jimmy off to one of the few available local girls, and a scheming local politician who wants to gain publicity from rehousing Nancy. The climactic scenes involve a birthday party for Jimmy to which the local girls are invited and which is interrupted by the appearance of Fionnuala (now a black swan rather than a white one); and an attempt to force Jimmy to leave the house which leads to a police shooting.

Swan Lake is distinguished by strong writing and acting, fabulous music and dancing, and exceptional staging. As a friend and colleague remarked afterwards, it’s more a work of ‘theatre-dance’ than ‘dance-theatre’ – at least in the sense of the German tradition of Tanztheater which tends to be less reliant on language or narrative (Dimitris Pappaioannou’s The Great Tamer reviewed here being a good recent example in the Perth Festival program).

Swan Lake is a powerful experience, with important things to say about mental illness and ageing, as well as sexual and political exploitation and abuse.

Indeed, earlier in his career Keegan Dolan was a choreographer for dance and ballet sequences in opera and theatre; and the mostly folk-dance-derived choreography in Swan Lake (as in Tchaikovsky’s original ballet) has a strongly narrative and expressive function (which is arguably true of all folk dance in its original form); certainly it has less to do with the autonomous or abstract ‘language’ of contemporary dance as developed by practitioners like Cunningham or Forsyth.

The work is anchored by a mesmerising performance from actor Mikel Murfi, who is the central storyteller and also takes on the ‘villain’ roles of priest, politician and policeman. It’s also (at least initially) a very physical performance (Murfi trained at the Ecole Jacques Lecoq): the opening of the show sees him in a pair of dirty underpants tethered to a concrete breeze block in the centre of the stage, circling and bleating like a goat, before being surrounded by a kind of village chorus of three male dancers (Saku Koistinen, Zen Jefferson and Erik Nevin) who force him down onto a red cloth on the floor and then drench him with water and beat him with red towels in an image which suggests a sacrificial animal (or perhaps Caravaggio’s Saint Paul).

There are also exceptional performances from Viennese dancer Alex Leonhardtsberger as Jimmie and French-born Rachel Poirier as Finola; Leonhardtstberger in particular provides the physical and emotional core of the work, totally convincing as a skinny working-class Irish lad, nimbly perching or shifting position atop a pile of breeze blocks like a bird, his body dissolving with liquid grace when he dances with Finola and her swan sisters.

Sabine Dargent’s minimalist stage design and Adam Silverman’s stark lighting highlight the performers and their bodies, along with Hyemi Shin’s simple but striking costumes, which are mostly in black-and-white or shades of grey; the image of Poirier wrapped in broken black wings crawling out of a box at the climax of the birthday party is particularly harrowing. The work is accompanied by live music from onstage band Slowly Moving Clouds, which like the choreography is mostly Irish-folk-derived, apart from the trance-like Latin beat which underpins the dreamlike ensemble dance of flying feathers that closes the show.  

The only flaws for me were in terms of performance dramaturgy. I found myself wanting Murfi as actor-storyteller to have the only dialogue; venerable Australian dancer-choreographer (and founding artistic director of Australian Dance Theatre) Elizabeth Cameron Dalman was visually arresting as the silent figure of Jimmy’s mother Nancy in her wheelchair, but less effective for me when she spoke. Conversely, in general I found the role and representation of the women in the story a little one-dimensional in comparison with the men. Perhaps this is a function of the archetypal nature of fairy-tales (though these contain plenty of strong and complex female characters); but here the male roles (including Murfi’s villians and even the speechless Jimmy) were endowed with depth and agency, whereas (apart from Poirier’s defiant and heartrending performance as Finola) the female roles seemed more functional, and I felt a little uncomfortable watching the crudely grotesque impersonation of (typically undesirable) local village girls by the male Chorus.

Nevertheless, I found Swan Lake a powerful experience, with important things to say about mental illness and ageing, as well as sexual and political exploitation and abuse. Keegan Dolan has forged a unique instrument with his form of theatre-dance; one that speaks to multiple audiences and in many cultural contexts. 

Swan Lake was performed at the Heath Ledger Theatre, February 14-17


Barrie Kosky’s co-production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute for the Komische Oper Berlin (where he is currently artistic director) was created in collaboration with Suzanne Andrade and Paul Barritt, who are co-founders and co-artistic directors of 1927, a London-based company who integrate live music and performance with silent film and projected animation (the name of the company ironically refers to the year when sound was introduced into film with The Jazz Singer).

I remember being enchanted by their production of Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea when I saw it at The Malthouse in 2008; Kosky says in a program interview that when he first saw it some years later he immediately wanted to do The Magic Flute with them. One can see why: the childlike storybook simplicity of 1927’s work dovetails neatly with at least one aspect of Mozart’s opera (and particularly Schikaneder’s libretto) as well as with Kosky’s own taste for tightly-staged visual surrealism. 

The astonishing set (designed by Esther Bialas) consists of a huge vertical advent-calendar-style wall (which also serves as a projection screen) with revolving windows at various levels through which characters appear and disappear, as well using the wings and hugging the wall along a narrow strip of forestage. The wall is set inside a cinema-style proscenium, which in turn sits inside the actual proscenium arch of the theatre stage – in this case, the Edwardian grandeur of His Majesty’s in Perth.

The whole thing unfolds like a dream or nightmare: a quality already present in the opera.

It’s a brilliant device not only for integrating the performers and projections, but also more generally the two media of theatre and film – and more particularly vaudeville and silent cinema. As such it also suggests period and costumes (also designed by Balias), which are accordingly drawn from the late 19th and early 20th centuries – again from the world of vaudeville, silent cinema, photography or visual art. Thus Tamino is a music-hall entertainer in a black-and-white tuxedo; Papageno and Pamina are dressed like Buster Keaton and Louise Brooks; Monostatos looks like Nosferatu (his white makeup and black gloves cleverly subverting the racist stereotype of his ‘blackness’); and the Three Ladies are pre-War German Hausfrauen in dowdy dresses, hats and furs; while Sarastro and his Knights are top-hatted, frock-coated and false-bearded Victorian or Edwardian gentlemen. Other characters are augmented by the more free-flowing Art Nouveau (or even Steampunk-inspired) visual style of the projected animations: the Queen of the Night notably appears as a giant skeletal spider (or Mother Alien), its huge predatory legs extending from the singer’s gaunt white human face, which emerges from a kind of chrysalis-body binding her tightly to the wall.


The whole thing unfolds like a dream or nightmare: a quality already present in the opera, with its abrupt musical, dramaturgical, scenic and generic shifts and non-sequiturs, but accentuated by the staging (Tamino even sings his opening aria with a superimposed projection of his legs running on the spot) and Kosky’s interventionist approach to an already fragmentary libretto and score. In particular, Schikenader’s spoken dialogue between the musical numbers (which makes the work technically a Singspiel rather than an opera) is replaced by projected titles on the screen like a silent film, accompanied by a fortepiano playing excerpts from Mozart’s C minor and D minor Piano Fantasias, again as in a music-hall or silent film screening. The overall effect is arguably to give The Magic Flute even more structural integrity than it originally possesses, especially given the imbalance between the genius of Mozart’s music and the mediocrity of Schikenader’s libretto. 

The roles are mostly doubled, and I’m not sure exactly whom I saw on the night (no program insert was provided), but all were exceptional actor-singers, with outstanding performances from a deeply sympathetic Papageno (Joan Martín-Royo/Tom Erik Lie) and an unusually rich and warm Pamina (Iwona Sobotka/Kim-Lilian Strebel) – the two characters who typically provide the work with its heart and soul. They were supported by a clear-voiced and penetrating Tamino (Aaron Blake/Adrian Strooper); a thrilling Queen of the Night (Christina Poulitsi/Aleksandra Olczyk); an agile Monostatos (Ivan Tursic/Emil Lawecki); a playful Papagena (Talya Lieberman); a magnificent silvery bass-voiced Sarastro (Insung Sim/Andras Beauer Kanabas), here doubling with the offstage voice of the mysterious Speaker; and an energetic trio of Ladies (Ashely Milanese/Mirka Wagner, Karola Gumos/Maria Fiselier and Nadine Weissman/Caren van Oijen).

Mention should also be made of the trio of boys from the Tölzer Boys Choir (appearing in a hot-air balloon like little Koskys in thick black rimmed glasses) and the Chorus of the Komische Oper as Sarastro’s cohorts. The WA Symphony Orchestra gave a forceful and detailed if at times somewhat driven account of the score (presumably because of the exigencies of the staging, and particularly the more or less continuous animation), conducted by Hendrik Vestmann/Jordan De Souza (again, no information was available), with Mark McNeill providing sensitive accompaniment on the fortepiano (as well as playing glockenspiel for Papageno’s magic bells).

A story of initiation into the mysteries of love became increasingly one of normalisation, patriarchy and binary thinking about gender, sexuality and race.

As Kosky points out in the program, The Magic Flute is a ‘heterogenous’ work and ‘any attempt to interpret the piece in only one way is bound to fail’. Nevertheless I felt that the production – and particularly the staging – imposed a rigid form and an almost trapped physicality that became increasingly nightmarish, with the set, projections and tightly focussed lighting (by Diego Leetz) making all the characters look like helpless insects ‘pinned and wriggling to the wall’. In terms of narrative and thematic content, a story of initiation into the mysteries of love became increasingly one of normalisation, patriarchy and binary thinking about gender, sexuality and race, culminating in the image of Tamino and Pamina being surrounded and absorbed into two separate groups of men and women – identically dressed in black-and-white tuxedos or Louise Brooks smocks, collars, stockings and hairdos – for the final chorus.

It’s a powerful and disturbing reading of the work; but like The Tempest (which in so many ways it resembles) there’s another, perhaps more deeply human layer to The Magic Flute, which can be heard in Mozart’s music (as in the music of Shakespeare’s language), and which points beyond revenge and recrimination towards the possibility of renewal and reconciliation. In the words of the final chorus: ‘Holy are you, O consecrated ones! You pushed on through the night! Thanks to you Osiris! And thanks to you, Isis! May your strength be victorious, and crowned with beauty and wisdom as a reward!’

The Magic Flute was at His Majesty’s Theatre Perth February 20-23 and will play at the Adelaide Festival Centre for the Adelaide Festival, March 1 – 3

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