Review: Delectable Shelter, Minotaur ~ theatre notes

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Review: Delectable Shelter, Minotaur

Watching the development of theatre companies is a fascinating business. They are organisms subject to all the travails of being alive: growth, change, decay, death and renewal. They are networks of individual energies which seed in unexpected places, producing unexpected syntheses and collaborations. The Hayloft Project and Chamber Made Opera are cases in point. Both have had a major impact on performance in this town, and both are under new artistic leadership.

Hayloft was begun by Simon Stone in 2007, pulling together a bunch of recently graduated talent for a notable production of Franz Wedekind's Spring Awakening (review here). Since then, Melbourne, and later Sydney, has seen a series of productions that re-examined classics and mounted new works, sometimes controversially, and Stone has catapulted to the main stage at the STC and is now resident director at Belvoir St. Hayloft, which has never been short on talent, is now under the artistic leadership of Anne-Louise Sarks, who as well as being assistant director on Stone's recent Belvoir production of The Wild Duck, directed the Fringe hit Yuri Wells and last year's exquisite version of Gorky's The Nest.

Chamber Made, on the other hand, has been around since 1988, until last year under the artistic directorship of Douglas Horton. From its first production, the oft-returned Helen Noonan solo work Recital, it defined itself as the place for modern opera in Melbourne. Its production of Phillip Glass's The Fall of the House of Usher, which featured an outstanding design by Trina Parker, remains one of my peak theatrical experiences. And this company too has a new artistic director - David Young, formerly AD of Aphids and a composer in his own right.

The continuities are much more obvious in Hayloft, which is not so much reinventing itself as continuing its previous explorations, using much of the same talent that drove their earlier work. Delectable Shelter, directed and written by Benedict Hardie, is Hayloft's second production under Sarks. Under the umbrella of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, it's an SF apocalyptic satire, produced with all the style we've come to expect from Hayloft. It's a stylish three-act nonsense with savage undertones and a surprisingly optimistic feel.

The conceit is that a bunch of fanatics have decided that the world is past saving and have ramped up climate change to a catastrophic degree that destroys all life on earth. Five people - an engineer and four members of an upper-middle class Melbourne family - are in a bunker underground, readying themselves to repopulate the planet, once it is possible to reinhabit it, with a new, utopian society.

The bunker itself, represented in Claude Marcos's design by a kind of open-sided cabinet propped on the stage, is decorated with the most eye-burning wallpaper I've ever seen which, even more than the walls of the box, emphasises the claustrophobia of Hardie's black vision. (The single sign of real life, a painting by Van Gogh, sits jarringly on the wall, representing everything that has been destroyed). In between the three acts, we are given performances of 80s pop songs rearranged by Benny Davis as Bach madrigals, sumptuously sung by the performers in eye-popping salmon-pink choral robes.

There are touches of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Red Dwarf and Chris Morris's deeply unsettling Blue Jam in the text. The first two acts follow the fortunes of this dysfunctional family, immediately after the catatrsophe and then a couple of years later. Privilege functions here as emotional and intellectual cauterisation, a complete inability to empathise with anyone, or to grasp any reality beyond the immediate situation. It emerges as careless cruelty and a carefully meaningless dialogue that skates over an abyss of neuroticism. The family obediently bows to the necessities of their situation: breeding schedules and survival.

The action then leaps three centuries, to the eve of their re-emergence onto the surface of the planet. Hardie examines the (il)logical results of a vastly depleted gene pool - a bunker populated by hundreds of people who are all identical to their five progenitors, and a musical culture that has evolved from two Ur-texts, Bach chorales and 80s pop songs. Idle suggestions written down three centuries earlier have risen to the status of religious texts, cannibalism is a way of life and the Chinese - according to rumour, the only other survivors of the destruction of the earth, and masters of leaping backwards onto buildings - are The Enemy. But how to greet the Enemy? With guns or with songs?

Alistair Mew's sublimimally rumbling sound design adds to the dissociative realities, suggesting a world crumbling in chaos outside the bright, airtight box where the increasingly unhinged characters dutifully pursue their deluded dreams. Hardie's play is sharp and clever, paying off all its jokes, although I thought the middle act a little overwritten and consequently slow. The cast brings an infectious energy and some beautiful voices to this bizarro world, with an especially sharp comic performance by Yesse Spence; the early scenes were a little sticky on opening night, but relaxed as the evening progressed. Very funny, with enough sting to create a lingering aftertaste.

Chamber Made's Minotaur: The Island is another cup of tea entirely. Something between a New Music concert, an installation, a ritual or invocation and the kind of performances children make for their families, it's part of an initiative by David Young that literally brings opera into the living room. For this performance, co-commissioned by Tasmania's 10 Days on the Island festival and a private sponsor, Dr Peta Gillingham, we were invited to an apartment 17 floors above St Kilda Rd. The event was catered by a chef and involved some good wines and a stunning night-time view over the Shrine: I imagine it was a very different experience from the opera's premiere at Bruny Island, where it was developed among the community.

Quite aside from its loungeroom setting, the reverberations with theatre made at home are irresistible. Once everyone was seated, we were asked to close our eyes, in lieu of a blackout. The costumes are all repurposed - dress-ups, headgear made of baskets and handbags and pencil-cases. There is a percussion kit, a small harpsichord and a double bass, but music is also made from a series of props: cane coffee tables, wooden objects, a conch shell. The event is immediately domestic and improvised, but the effect is fascinating: it's a re-enactment of a myth that draws out of these humble objects a compelling sense of ritual. I found the performance wholly absorbing, and started thinking about the Lares, the household gods of the Romans, where the domestic sphere is also the site of the sacred.

Margaret Cameron's text is a fragmentary poem of considerable beauty that bookends the performance. The opening section is spoken by Caroline Lee, lying as Venus washed up on an imaginary shore, "the worst place I can imagine", and the final stanzas are sung by Deborah Kayser as Ariadne, who has lost her way and now must "start again". In the centre is the question of ecstasy and loss.

Venus recalls the conception of the Minotaur, half bull, half man, the result of Pasiphaƫ's passion for a white bull - a punishment meted out to her by the Goddess of Love for the husband's refusal to sacrifice the bull. That perverse copulation is the precursor of Ariadne's treacherous passion for the Athenian champion Theseus who, once he has used her insider knowledge to find and slay the monster in the Labyrinth, abandons her on the Isle of Naxos on his way back to Athens. The opera is about this place of abandonment.

In this opera, "identity is all timbre". David Young's score is about detail, silences and sounds drawn from ordinary objects as well as conventional instruments - the scraping along a plank, the rustling percussion from striking a basket, the breath of the performers - that build to concanetations of musical energy and then dissipate. It has a feeling of something ancient behind it: there are sounds that gesture towards the music scored for the Classical Greek theatre when it was first performed. Transformations are minimal and uneasy, and demand close listening. It's a familiar enough menu of sound for those at least a little acquainted with New Music, but what it's not is theatrical: Minotaur explores other senses of rhythm and fragmentation and attention.

The music evolves alongside highly stylised, hieratic performance. The performance walks a fine line, always with the threat of falling into the risible, but it never quite falls over. This is because its unstable tensions retain their suspension, and is also due to the performances themselves, which are utterly focused. And it creates some memorable images: a woman with a bird's head, playing the harpsichord; a multiple vision of a bull, made of six bodies; Ariadne holding a conch shell, perched like a ship's figurehead on a island made of a jumble of furniture. I couldn't always read the symbolism, but somehow that didn't matter. Fascinating work.

Images: promotion shots. Top, Hayloft's Delectable Shelter; bottom, Chamber Made's Minotaur.

Delectable Shelter, written and Directed by Benedict Hardie. Composed by Benny Davis, musical direction by Nathan Gilkes, set design by Claude Marcos, lighting design by Lucy Birkinshaw, costumes by Esther Hayes, sound design by Alister Mew. With Thomas Conroy, Simone Page Jones, Anthony Mackey, Josh Price and Yesse Spence. The Hayloft Project @ Theatre Works, until April 17.

Minotaur: The Island, composed by David Young, directed and written by Margaret Cameron. Performers: Deborah Kayser, Caroline Lee and Hellen Sky. Musicians: Mark Cauvin, Matthias Schack-Arnott and Anastasia Russell-Head. Commissioned by Ten Days on the Island and Dr Peta Gillingham, performed at a private apartment. Closed.

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