MIAF: The Beggar's Opera <i>and</i> The Return of Ulysses ~ theatre notes

Thursday, October 21, 2004

MIAF: The Beggar's Opera and The Return of Ulysses

Melbourne International Arts Festival: The Busker's Opera, directed by Robert Lepage. Music composed, arranged and performed by Frederike Bedard, Martin Belanger, Julie Fainer, Claire Gignac, Frederic Lebrasseur, Veronika Makdissi-Warren, Kevin McCoy, Steve Normandin, Marco Poulin and Jean Rene. Dramaturge Kevin McCoy. Ex Machina. The Return of Ulysses by Claudio Monteverdi, directed by William Kentridge, puppets by Adrian Kohler and Handspring Puppet Company, music performed by Ricercar Consort. Playhouse, Victorian Arts Centre.

There are times when the blindingly obvious clambers over the event horizon of my mind and gives a big friendly "hoy!" Such a moment occurred somewhere in the middle of The Busker's Opera, Robert Lepage's exuberant, sexy, vulgar take on John Gay's 18th century The Beggar's Opera. I thought, oh gosh (or expletives to that effect): opera's just a bunch of songs that tell a story.

The story, it must be confessed, doesn't make a lot of sense. But as John Gay himself wrote, "you must allow that in this kind of drama 'tis no matter how absurdly things are brought about". In The Busker's Opera, unlike the original, the over-wived Macheath is actually executed (by lethal injection), although he takes off his orange suit straight afterwards and comes and sings in the epilogue of how "the wretch of today may be happy tomorrow". And thus death shall have no dominion. To be honest, I wasn't entirely sure why he was condemned to death in the first place, although it seemed to have something to do with his getting rather friendly with a soprano in a silver dress on top of a piano.

I hesitate to call The Busker's Opera an adaptation of Gay's piece. It is more a kind of merry pillage: Lepage appears to have simply filleted out the songs and then has given them to the cast and musicians, who set them in a bracingly various set of styles, ranging from rock to hiphop to 17th century baroque, and perform them with all the rough vitality of street performers. He uses almost no dialogue and none, that I could see, from The Beggar's Opera. But I do think it's entirely in the spirit of the original.

Gay's opera opens with a dialogue between a Beggar (who has written the opera) and a Player, who discuss the piece we are about to see. Similarly, Lepage opens with a conversation between a Busker, who for the purposes of the show has authored the piece, and an Agent. It then swings, like Gay, into a nonsensical story about various exotic lowlifes, including "a prison scene, which the ladies always reckon charmingly pathetic".

But there, more or less, the similarities end. Lepage himself claims the opera is a tilt against corporatisation, or in particular, the "Weill corporation", which cancelled his production of Brecht's Threepenny Opera (Brecht's own take on Gay). It's hard to see anything so grandiose as a critique of corporatisation in the sketchy narrative of sleaze in the music business which follows, but there are certainly a couple of fingers up to the Weill family.

Lepage seems to have decided to out-Brecht Brecht, but it is fair to say that he lacks Brecht's political perspicacity. Nevertheless, his direction possesses considerable wit and style, and attains the kind of simplicity which only comes with a great deal of thought and money. The stage is divided into two main areas: backstage, where are the musicians and instruments, and the forestage, where performers come forward to do their numbers and scenes. A huge flatscreen video is moved around the stage by some complicated mechanics. It provides all the lyrics and scene details, a la Brecht, occasional live footage and various complementary images.

What makes the two hours fly is the high-octane performances by a wonderful ensemble cast, which give the production both the roughness and skill it needs. It's like a rather beautiful rock concert, or a mutated, overblown cabaret. Lepage also has the absolute gift of Gay's tough lyrics, which somehow make the transition to contemporary rock or blues as if they absolutely belong there. Perhaps this makes perfect sense. Gay's opera, after all, contained no original music, for all the songs were set to popular airs of the period; and if they are sung here in another mode, it is still a mode all their own.

I had a fabulous time. So, judging by the cheers, did a lot of other people, although by the end I was surrounded by a sea of empty chairs. I was wearing my most delicious - in my fact, my only - perfume, so I really don't think I smelt that bad. It must have been the opera. There is a rather undergraduate statement on the program that warns hopefully: "this opera may offend everybody". Frankly, I was surprised that it offended anybody, but I assume that it must have.

I had a different kind of fabulous time at The Return of Ulysses. This is the kind of art which makes profound connections below the level of everyday consciousness. The effect is rather like being ambushed: it liberates feelings at some primeval strata of thought, and then, while you're innocently enjoying some exquisite music, they sneak up behind and pole-axe you with your own unsuspected emotion.

This is, to digress for a moment, an experience I always associate with beauty: a word which is abused to meaninglessness but which nevertheless means something to me. The idea of beauty often exercises poets, as it mercilessly exposes the inadequacy of words in attempting to communicate states of extreme subjectivity. Despite this difficulty, in my novella Navigatio I attempted to analyse what my experience of it is:

"...beauty is nothing, sang Rilke, but this terrifying beginning... The terror of beauty is that everything is beautiful. It is the chaotic self, the chaotic body, the chaotic world, fragmentary, diffuse, unassigned to meaning, against which form, an aesthetic armour, a self by which we understand our given selves, defends itself from the chaos within and without it. And yet art contains the terror of obliteration, which inhabits the centre of beauty. It admits the reality of death, of human finitude and failure, it admits that the world is not us and that we do not control it. This admission is love: the voluntary renunciation of self-tyranny, the ascension to the place of ordinary beauty, which redeems nothing."

The Return of Ulysses, which is directed by the extraordinary South African visual artist William Kentridge, seemed to me to be dealing very directly with this idea of beauty. It is a production which is multiple at every level; I would have liked to have seen it at least once more, in order to absorb more of its complexities. Yet one of its achievements is that what is really a very complicated event is given an air of illusory simplicity.

It is a co-production between the South African group Handspring Puppets, with whom Kentridge has had an on-going collaboration, and the Belgian ensemble Ricercar Consort. The story of Ulysses' return home to Ithaca and his reuniting with Penelope and Telemachus (after the slaughter of all his rivals) is told simply in Monteverdi's baroque opera, here cut to half its normal length by Philippe Pierlot and scored for a viola da gamba trio and plucked instruments such as the harp, theorbo and guitar. Pierlot's adaptation creates a work of great clarity and poignancy, performed to great emotional effect by an extremely accomplished cast of singers.

From the opera, the production builds up in two main layers: the puppets, which are manipulated by the singers as well as the animators, and Kentridge's own animated drawings, which are projected onto the back of the stage. Adrian Kohler's expressive puppets are almost life-size, and hand carved from wood. They are operated bunraku style, with the manipulators visible to the audience. I am always fascinated by how, in the hands of master puppeteers, this artifice isolates human gesture and endows it with feeling in ways that can't be achieved by actors. Anime masters like Miyazake can manage exactly the same thing: a schematically drawn cartoon of a child can be utterly convincing if its movement is meticulously accurate.

The puppets follow a simultaneous double narration: firstly a literal illustrating of the opera; and secondly a man, represented by a second, identical Ulysses, dying in his bed in hospital. These stories intertwine with the much more abstract narration which is unfolding on the screen backstage. It's hard to describe the impact of Kentridge's allusive, transformative animation, which is hand-drawn in charcoal using an austere palette of greys and browns. The images are incredibly various, and include sonar scans of the body, x-rays, video footage of water or heart operations, landscapes which transform from ancient Greece to bleak visions of contemporary South Africa, or lushly sensual flowers and vines. The images circle a constant refrain of death, decay and regeneration, metamorphising liquidly from one state to another with a dynamic which is disturbingly erotic.

The whole is brought together on a stage which is shaped like a lecture theatre, the musicians seated around in a half circle while the action flows before and behind them. It is lit by a rich play of Rembrandtian colours that highlight the nuances of the woods of the instruments and puppets. The opening scene, in which the gods discuss Ulysses' fate and mortal frailty, is in fact modelled on Rembrandt's painting The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp. The singers and manipulators gather around the prone body of the second Ulysses, and introduce the tenor of this production. It is in fact a memento mori, a theatrical version of those mediaeval images which urged people to remember that they, too, would die. In contemporary contexts, the capricious figures of the gods become the equally mysterious workings of the interior of the human body: an angiogram of a heart attack, for example, is the equivalent of Zeus' thunderbolts.

With such a subtle and multifarious work, it is hard to trace the motion of action and effect; it works cumulatively and patiently at levels which are often subconscious. At the end, the death of the hospitalised Ulysses, which occurred while the other puppet was enjoying a rapturous reunion with his long lost wife Penelope, was unexpectedly devastating. I found myself suddenly and embarassingly in tears. I suppose I was crying for myself. As Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote to a young girl grieving for the dead leaves of autumn, "It is the fate that man was born for. / It is Margaret you mourn for."

Melbourne International Arts Festival

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