Phobia ~ theatre notes

Saturday, May 28, 2005


Phobia: text and direction by Douglas Horton, music and sound concept by Gerard Brophy. Design coordination by Jacqui Everett. With Teresa Blake, Boris Conley, Patrick Cronin, David Hewitt, Graeme Leak, Daniel Witton. Chamber Made Opera at Melbourne Town Hall.

wit 1 (wt)
n. 1. The natural ability to perceive and understand; intelligence.
2. a. Keenness and quickness of perception or discernment; ingenuity. Often used in the plural: living by one's wits. b. wits Sound mental faculties; sanity: scared out of my wits.
3. a. The ability to perceive and express in an ingeniously humorous manner the relationship between seemingly incongruous or disparate things. b. One noted for this ability, especially one skilled in repartee. c. A person of exceptional intelligence.

Perhaps the chief pleasure of Phobia is its wit. In all senses of the word.

It's a fond and deft tribute to the genre of film noir: the black and white world of hard boiled detectives, blonde dames, mysterious violent deaths and high heels clicking down shadowy alleys: a Hitchcockian universe in which the key to a mystery, instead of comfortably knitting up the world like Miss Marple, opens up to existential blankness. But here the medium really is the message.

Described as "the sound track to an imagined film", Phobia is set in a chaotic sound studio, in which each of the performers sit behind desks littered with various objects chosen, as becomes clear, for their sonic qualities. The narrative follows the employment of a detective by a man concerned by the erratic behaviour of his wife, whom he fears is having a breakdown. There follows a story of love, suicide, surveillance and mistaken identity, where of course the dame, under various identities, gets it (three times).

The narrative really exists to create a pallet of colours and moods, an occasion for the sound world shaped by Gerard Brophy and given life by the performers. The subcutaneous narrative, the detective story, the post-mortem dissection of film and the dissolution of identity are all familiar staples of post-modernity, but here they are given a fresh twist.

The focus of this opera is on the performances, which bring multi-tasking to a new level: the cast plays a multiplicity of instruments and performative roles with a tightly disciplined precision which gives the impression that they're all inter-dependent parts of a single organism. Part of the reason for this must be the intensely collaborative nature of its creation. Composer Gerard Brophy worked closely with the performers and the director Douglas Horton in creating scored elements and improvisatory frameworks.

As the credits make clear, the conventional roles of composer, director, performer and so on have been blurred, as have the distinctions between music and noise/sound (although some might argue that much 20th century music has done this). And there's a fair bit of play with gender and identity as well, as none of the dramatic roles is assigned to any particular performer, and an individual role might switch from one cast member to several others in the space of a few seconds.

A fascinating miscellany of objects - black telephones, crumpled paper, celery, egg beaters, books - are transformed into instruments. There's something of the obsessed geek in this relentless tapping of the secret sound-life of found objects, and even a touch of the Goon Show. This intricate soundscape segues into lush and seedy jazz numbers or other fragments drawing on a wide range of musical influences.

Horton's direction makes Phobia - surprisingly perhaps, since it also seems strongly ascetic - visually lush. The lighting plays on the cavernous spaces of the Town Hall, creating soft, lamplit oases in a world where it always seems to be night-time. In the darkness behind the playing space, performers act out film tropes - for example, the looped image of a woman running upstairs and casting herself into darkness, or a man in a suit lighting a cigarette. This sense of chiaroscuro and distorted perspective reinforces a pervading nostalgia that is underwritten by menace.

With its sly cultural referencing and absurd gender-bending, Phobia has many comic moments, but often what makes you laugh is delight at its sheer ingenuity. Like that hardy production Recital, about to be revived again at the Malthouse Theatre, it's high camp refined through a rigorously disciplined aesthetic, a mode which best illuminates Horton's considerable talents.

Chamber Made Opera

Disclosure: Douglas Horton has directed two operas by Michael Smetanin, of which I wrote the libretti: The Burrow (1995) and Gauguin (2000).

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