Divertissement ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, August 26, 2008


Andrée Greenwell emailed me yesterday, asking if I was planning to write anything about her show The Villainelles, which was on for two nights last week at North Melbourne Arts House. "Am more than down in the dumps," she said, "re a second season of what I am sure will have no reviews." And, gentle reader, my conscience smote me; this blog is, in part, supposed to be a place where things that vanish under the radar can get a bit of attention, although I confess that, even in a small city like Melbourne, that's a task that's beyond my physical capacities.

The Villainelles is a show of startling conceptual simplicity. Andrée collected poems about notable women, legendary and historical - a various bunch from the Virgin Mary to Princess Diana to Charlotte Perkins Gilman to Amelia Earhart - and set them to music. She sings them herself, with backing from a eight piece band and vocals from Donna Hewitt. The first name of each woman is projected on the back wall of the stage for each song, and there is some restrained but dramatic lighting. It's a presentation that rather recalls the musical theatricality of Laurie Anderson: not quite cabaret, not quite concert, not quite theatre, but with elements of all of them.

The reason why I haven't written about it is that two of the poems she set are mine, which represents a certain conflict of interest. ("Alison Croggon yet again demonstrates her remarkable lyric genius, thus proving her unrivalled place in the pantheon of greats"... Ha! Who wouldn't want to write their own reviews?) The bulk of the poems are by Melbourne poet Jordie Albiston, whose poetry collections Andrée has adapted into music theatre (The Hanging of Jean Lee, recently shortlisted for the Best Music Theatre Script prize in the Victorian Premier's Literary Awards, and Botany Bay Document). Another is freely adapted from a piece by Kathleen Mary Fallon.

The title, The Villainelles, is a pun taken from a fiendishly difficult poetic form, the villanelle, (invented, like tennis, by those sadists the French). The villanelle is a 19-line poem which uses only two rhymes and in which lines are repeated as refrains: the most famous English example is probably Dylan Thomas's "Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night". It's an appropriate title for a series of songs in which passion and attention to form are driving preoccupations.

The show demonstrates Greenwell's versatility and theatrical flair. The music draws on an eclectic range of influences from contemporary rock to cabaret to folk, and each song musically responds to each individual poem. It makes what could be potentially an earnestly feminist piece into a rich work, musically and emotionally complex, excavating the darkness, scandal and various passions of individual women.

As for me, I loved what Andrée did with my work. She chose poems that are distant from me now, which seem to me to have been written by someone else, albeit with a certain glaze of familiarity. To my surprise (my poems have been set to music before, and I'm kind of used to composers transforming them) the poems are sung as written. And in their new settings, they seemed completely fresh and surprising. I can't think of a bigger compliment.


Abe Pogos said...

Hi Alison,

Glad to see you wrote something about Villainelles. I'm also an old friend and occasional collaborator of Andree's, but even by her lofty standards I thought this piece was pretty brilliant.

Slight correction. The Hanging of Jean Lee was nominated for Best Music Theatre Script, not the drama prize.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks Abe - the one fact I didn't recheck - what would I do without my subby readers? I'll fix it up straight away.