Review: One Night The Moon ~ theatre notes

Monday, September 21, 2009

Review: One Night The Moon

The lost child is an iconic, even obsessive, figure in Australian folklore, the subject of song, story and painting. Frederick McCubbin’s 1886 painting Lost encapsulates the myth: a young girl stands hesitantly, almost invisibly, in bushland, on the verge of being swallowed by the trees. The story focused a settler’s anxiety in a land which refused to obey the known laws of European agriculture, in which even the seasons were upside down. Settlers entered an environment that faced them with climactic extremes – flood, drought and fire – and which was unfamiliar and harsh to eyes coached by the domesticated landscapes of England. And this anxiety was underlaid by grim reality. White children commonly did wander into the bush, often with tragic results.

One Night The Moon – originally a 2001 film that was it itself inspired by a documentary – is loosely based on one such story, when a little boy was lost in Dubbo in 1932. When the police force’s Aboriginal tracker, Alexander “Tracker” Riley, was called in, the boy’s grandfather refused to have a blackfella on his property and conducted the search himself. Transposed into fiction, it’s a story which highlights how the resistance of indigenous knowledge among Europeans led to tragic results for both black and white. And it shows how the mythology of colonisation in Australia, wretchedly similar in terms of the state’s dispossession of Indigenous people, differs from the United States. There the major annual holiday, Thanksgiving, celebrates the life-saving offer of food by Native Americans to starving settlers.

One Night The Moon emerged from a collaboration between director Rachel Perkins and a distinguished creative team that included songwriters Kev Carmody, Paul Kelly and Mairead Hannan. That movie in turn has inspired a work of music theatre, adapted for the stage by one the film’s original writers, John Romeril, and directed by Wesley Enoch. Here this story, transposed to the Victorian Grampians, becomes a fable of the gulfs between two cultures. And yet its very aesthetic, which knits together traditions from both cultures into a highly original work, is an expression of hope for some other way.

Perhaps what is most striking about One Night The Moon, now on at the Malthouse, is how Romeril and Enoch have created a work that is profoundly of its medium: this is, from the ground up, pure theatre. Enoch and Romeril have brought together their different sensibilities to create a fascinating hybrid of theatrical influences that are fused together in a work of deceptive simplicity. Both, in different ways, return to theatrical roots.

Romeril has long been influenced by Asian theatre, most explicitly in works such Miss Tanaka and Love Suicides. This interest is perhaps an extension of the Brechtian emphasis in his work. Like other modernist theatre artists - Artaud, Piscator, Meyerhold - Brecht was heavily influenced by Asian theatre: his “alienation effect” emerged from his seeing the Peking Opera in 1935, and he adapted Noh techniques for his Lehrstücke, or learning plays.

Likewise, the theatrical shape of One Night The Moon draws heavily on Asian influences: as in traditional Asian theatre, the band is on stage, and the narrative unfolds through music and song rather than dialogue. But perhaps it is most visible in its slow, inevitable dramatic movement: this is a work that builds steadily to emotional climax, and which bypasses conventional western techniques of affect. Character, for example, is not a major concern: the figures are symbolic and representative, rather than psychological portraits.

Enoch, on the other hand, returns to Indigenous ritual. He frames the show with a “welcome to country” smoke ceremony conducted by Ursula Yovich, and includes sand painting – a traditional part of Aboriginal ritual – as a key visual element. When Albert, the police tracker (Kirk Page), dresses for work with the help of his wife (Yovich), it has at once the sense of Indigenous ceremonial preparation and a European echo, as if, as an arm of the law, he were being draped in the robes of a judge.

In part, this show is a dialogue between Aboriginal and European representations of landscape, just as it is a tragic fable about miscommunication between black and white. Just after the smoke ceremony, in one of its more spectacular moments, Yovich sets fire to an early drawing of the Grampians by Eugene von Guérard, and throughout the show are glimpses of a comprehensive selection of colonial landscape art. These elements are combined seamlessly with some beautiful 3D animation, which itself draws from the iconography of European fairy tales, and are heightened by some superb multimedia. The music also expressively combines diverse influences.

It all sounds a lot more complicated than it is in execution. The set is a high, bare stage with steps down to the floor where the ceremonial elements take place. Anna Cordingley’s flexible design - a series of screens that lift and fall, gradually exposing the depth of the stage - brings all these different elements together, heightened by some moodily expressive lighting from Niklas Pajanti.

The songs both drive the action and are the chief means of emotional communication, and it’s in the songs that the performances find their heart. The dialogue doesn’t wholly escape a vexing sense of alienation caused by the use of mikes, but the cumulative power of the four performers winds up to a shattering, iconic climax. The result recalls most compellingly the work of Robert Wilson, but Enoch evades the sense of slickness that can mar Wilson’s theatre. There’s a complexity of thought in this work that lifts it beyond cliché, but it still retains the potent simplicity of fable. A fairytale for our time.

This review was published in Friday's Australian.

Picture: One Night The Moon. Picture: Jeff Busby

One Night The Moon, adapted by John Romeril from a film by Kev Carmody, Mairead Hannan, Paul Kelly, Rachel Perkins and John Romeril. Directed by Wesley Enoch. Composed by Kev Carmody, Mairead Hannan and Paul Kelly, musical direction Mairead Hannan. Set and costumes Anna Cordingley, lighting design by Niklas Pajanti, sound design by Kelly Ryall. With Natalie O'Donnell, Kirk Page, Mark Seymour and Ursula Yovich. Malthouse Theatre @ the Merlyn Theatre, CUB Malthouse, until October 3.


Richard Pettifer said...

A glowing review Alison!

I had some major concerns with this show and its faithfulness to the source. I avoid heavily panning ambitious work, and I think this production always had a high hurdle to leap because of its quality source material.

One Night the Moon is one of the more innovative Australian films to come out of the industry for a long time, its genre-blending, technical and creative proficiency, the singularity of the collaboration between Romaril, Paul Kelly and Rachel Perkins not to mention stunning cinematography from Kim Batterham (never seen the Australian landscape look so ghostly) make this film a gem and one of my favourite Australian films. An SBS made for TV drama that had a small national release and wasn't given half the credit it deserved, it was a little thing that grew into a big thing, and it will hopefully grow bigger as more significance is granted to it.

As I sat through the strangely prolonged opening, watched the huge backdrops slooooowly flying in and out, saw our land burning and sand shuffled over the projections, I was disappointed in the lack of attention paid to this unique source. Your review put some of those choices in perspective for me, especially in relation to asian theatre, but all the same, I feel it worked mostly against the source rather than for - that the challenges the films presents, techincal, formal, and historical, (it's an Australian contemporary historical drama-musical) had been abandoned and replaced with a completely new forum.

For example, "This Land is Mine", in the film a stunning scene for its subtlty, a powerful score, and humanising of the white character making a horrible decision, it's well-handledness for want of a better word, was reduced to a simple stand/sing-off from ends of the stage and a somewhat demonic portrayal from Mark Seymour.

To me, this moment was emblematic of the bigger problem. What was a complex and layered engagement with history and racial politics through dramatic song was replaced with a unproblematic rendition with some bizarre fly-in-then-fly-out backdrops and interesting if didactic and strangely pitched projections.

So many strange choices from a text ripe with potential.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi 4Coffins - nice to see you here! I confess, I haven't seen the film. Whatever the merits of the theatre, it's hard to think how any theatrical adaptation could have competed, all the aame, with the cinematography that you describe - hence the shift to those other kinds of representation and a different kind of form. I guess I was reading the semiotics of the design and staging, which made it far from cliched for me, but complex and fascinating. I know this show divided people: I spoke to people who loved it as well as others who really didn't like it at all (and no one who had seen the original film, so it's good to hear your perspective).

Richard Pettifer said...

I guess I felt like had I not known the film I certainly wouldn't have wanted to see it based on that piece of theatre. There was a lack of... Love? Enthusiasm? Respect? For the film which was frustrating (and kind of bemusing, since John Romeril worked on both).

Anonymous said...

'One Night The Moon' is like sitting at the edge of a dark carpet and watching as a story, bathed in pale light,is whispered across it.
The story movements speak of contact between disparate modes of consciousness; adults finding the worlds of children inaccessible, forgotten, lost; the presence of dark elements in our society being both within the home and just past it.
Knowledge of the ineffable is embodied by a powerful, wise man, a Shaman- that knowledge is feared and rejected in one culture as much as it is revered in another.
Under Wesley Enoch's direction, 'One Night The Moon' also spoke of the subtle forces that can tease us out of the cracks and corners of our lives and lead us into the dark with soft hands; highlighting that sometimes the most confronting insights and experiences start as a gentle bidding rather than as a forceful ejection into harsh light or as a loud revelation.
For me it was about tumbling into tangled spaces- as you mentioned Alison, the places beyond rational understanding, the places that persist despite our Western predilection for compartmentalization.
The sense of weeds twisting and turning beneath our impulse for manicured lawns is highly appealing.
The play spoke to the depth in our psyches; the unseen that hums to us in elusive codes (codes that often reach children first), despite living in an environment where so much mystery is cut through by bright lights or repetitive sound or distracted busyness.
There might be something truly frightening (or fecund) waiting for us just beyond our shallow breathing- if we exhale fully, what might happen to us? If we breathe into the wild mess at the back of our ordered existence, where might we end up?
I found 'One Night The Moon' deeply rewarding; the interplay between Indigenous and European ideas/images results in vivid theatre and was sensitively executed.
I walked away with a fistful of pictures and questions.
Thanks for your insightful review Alison- can't wait to see the film.

Alison Croggon said...

Well, not so bemusing maybe if you know Romeril's work. I respected that they didn't attempt to stage a movie - that sort of attempt is very often my least favourite theatre, since theatre simply can't do the naturalism or the fantasias that film can - and instead made a work that is seriously theatrical. Admittedly, I'm a bit hampered in not knowing what the film is (mental note: order dvd), but on the other hand, what was there on stage was quite sufficiently interesting for me; and in the end, no matter the source text (movie or play or novel), that's the only thing that counts.

As an aside, I was also very interested to see Enoch's latest weaving of cultural differences, which I've been following for some years now and which I think is one of the more interesting aesthetic evolutions going on at present in our theatre.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi anon - we crossed posts! Thanks for that gorgeous image of the breath and the whisper.

Anonymous said...

The DVD of One Night the Moon is for sale at the Malthouse during the season.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the thoughtful review. Just a quick note - the original Tracker Riley case that the story is based on actually involved a little boy who was lost, and it was his grandfather who refused Riley's help. There's an interesting documentary about Tracker Riley made by his descendants that's worth a look. Seems like a wonderful man.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks Sian - you can see exactly how far my backgrounding went. I'll fix up the error!

Anonymous said...

something was going on with the sound mix (or lack thereof) in one night the moon (1 october) - or was it my imagination - everyone screaming and yelling and no subtle emotions - i notice no sound mixer was listed in the program. was it a technical problem on the night or was this poor planning?

Borbs said...

If indeed this was a didactic Brechtian theatrical experience I'm not sure what I was supposed to have gained from it. White farmers were racist? Indigenous peoples have good intentions but have been marginalised? I'm not seeing the complexity here.

I got the symbolism, the ritual, the Asian theatre influences, I understood the (tokenistic) use of the smoke ceremony and the visually (distracting) sand painting, the projections, the shadow puppetry ... but all these seemed to signify ... what? That race relations in this country were deplorable? Not an idea that can justify boring the audience with cliche and stereotype, or hammering them over the head with predictability and inflated mysticism (a sparse five minute mystical soundscape that bored me to tears, and I'm a musician!)

I know that Noh theatre is as slow as it is rich in symbolic gestural vocabulary, but do we have to sit through a two minute scene change just to establish blatantly obvious symbolism? Space-land, divided, interior-exterior, known-unknown, black-white ... yes we get it ... and ...? Now drop that freakin' set!

Brecht said that theatre should be rational discussion of social conditions to effect change ... this certainly was a rational discussion, but I doubt it had anything to say that will effect change.

I wasn't blown away by the voices; the tech was distracting and over done; the directing involved complex blocking - such as moving the black man and the white man repetitively from one part of the stage to the other, occupying each others' spaces, whilst singing about who owns the land; the plot was poorly paced and predictable; the footlights (turned out toward the audience) blinded me for an unnecessary duration; the songs were poorly seated into the text (but you can always claim that this is an alienation effect ... I guess) ... I'll stop here ...

Sorry to be cynical, but to reduce race relations in this country to such a simplistic display is what Grotowski called, the 'beautiful lie'.

Bruno Cassidy said...

Sorry I missed your reading in Grasmere. I got there late and all the doors were locked. I banged on the door, rang the bell and had some of that awful coffee and then went intot he village. I tried again later but the same problem......Too bad

Peter Davies

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Peter - you did some time travelling - I haven't read there yet! It is in fact tomorrow night. But I'm sorry about the coffee.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Peter - you did some time travelling - I haven't read there yet! It is in fact tomorrow night. But I'm sorry about the coffee.