Melbourne Festival review: Political Mother, The Magic Flute ~ theatre notes

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Melbourne Festival review: Political Mother, The Magic Flute

When Hofesh Shechter debuted here during Brett Sheehy's first Melbourne Festival, I was in the UK and missed it. So it's fair to say that I had no idea what to expect last night when I sat down to watch Political Mother - aside, that is, from the kind of generalised anticipation prompted by a bunch of people saying things like "!!!" when his name was mentioned. 70 minutes later I staggered out of the Playhouse Theatre, not so much enlightened as endarkened. I didn't even know what I thought, and the truth is that it will take a few days before I do. However, I'm seeing four shows in the next two days, and needs must, etc. Herewith some notes.

Shechter is an Israeli choreographer and musician based in London, a former member of the Tel Aviv dance company Batsheva. That influence remains in the clarity of his choregraphy and in the disturbing images of militarisation that inform Political Mother. But where Batsheva's Ohad Naharin retains an almost classical quality, Shechter drags dance into a universe of theatrical assault. From its opening moments, when a soldier clad in the ceramic armour of the ancient Middle East appears out of darkness, plunges a sword through his body and writhes in agony as he dies, it's relentless.

Political Mother is a - I want to say "meditation", but this seems almost precisely the wrong word - an analogue in performance of political violence, especially the violence of nationalism. Its visions emerge out of a thick darkness and then vanish, almost like ghosts across the inner eye, to an amplified score. The music throbs through your body, making the experience visceral and immediate - its various music is mostly a driving contemporary beat, threaded through with the half tones of Middle Eastern folk music, but includes the sound of the wind in a desert, Verdi and Bach, and some blinding death metal. The three drums and four electric guitars are performed live, as a singer/charismatic dictator, sun-glassed like a glamorous Gaddafi, screams into a microphone between them.

The choreography mostly weaves out of folk dance - a staple of nationalistic identity since it was first created in the 19th century - here extended to extreme states of ecstasy and abjection, defiance and oppression. Shechter's command of dynamic relationship is masterly: groups of dancers collect and disintegrate, creating a rising tension between the individual and the group. There are glimpses of pastoral idyll or communal ideal that collapse and distort under the avalanche of sound and fury; moments of human connection, even love, that splinter and corrupt under the tyrannical obliteration of political domination. The dancers are astonishing, performing this challengingly complex movement at a pace which seems physically unfeasible.

I experienced a lot of this performance like a dream, often a horrible dream: there are glimpses of obscure nightmare - necrophiliac coupling on a battlefield, concentration camps, a chorus of marching zombies - which suddenly clear to moments of realistic representation - a couple imprisoned, threatened with a gun, who are then released and, in a rare moment of lyricism, embrace. This nightmare-like quality is reinforced by the design: the musicians are back stage, on different levels above the dancers, and flash in and out of darkness. The drummers first appear half-lit in military uniforms, so all you can see is the gleaming buttons on their torsos, avatars of war.

Shechter's brutal shifting of theatrical focus makes it impossible to read the dance outside its own terms of reference: you are forced to experience it. A brief interlude, in which we are staring at an empty stage to the sound of baroque strings, comes as an emotional relief. The final minutes rewind the opening sequence, until we are back at the opening image, with the unknown soldier brought back to life, drawing the sword out of his body. Perhaps we should go back, Shechter seems to be saying, and undo the act of primal violence to the self that inaugurates the nationalistic state. Unmissable.


Impempe Yomlingo's production of Mozart's The Magic Flute is equally dreamlike, but rather less traumatic. It seems impossible that this most charming of operas should be scored almost entirely for marimbas - I confess, not my most favourite of instruments - but here it is. Rather than diminishing the music, it exposes its wit and enchantment.

The connection is a traditional Tsonga folktale that is so close to Mozart's absurd fairytale that it makes you wonder if he knew it. Taking this cue, director Mark Dornford-May has translated the opera into the vocabulary of African townships, rescoring its orchestrations for marimba, voice and - in the famous Papageno/Papagena duet - with bottles of water struck by the chorus. The cast performs barefoot on a raked stage of scaffolding and humble wooden boards, with the marimba orchestra performing on either side. The witty costumes combine fantastic contemporary conceits with African motifs. The various characters and events are transformed into African equivalents, with a libretto performed in English and Xhosa.

The result is exhilarating. It's performed by an impeccable cast which seamlessly combines operatic bravura with African traditions of song and dance. There are many stand-out performances: Mhlekazi "Wha Wha" Mosiea makes an enchanting Tamino; Nobulumko Mngxekeza is a superb Pamina; Zamile Gantana, decked out in military camouflage, is a charismatically comic Papageno, and Pauline Malefane (also one of the musical directors) as the Queen of the Night - in a costume of feathers, studded black leather and gravity-defying hair - is hugely impressive.

Part of its pleasure is in the sheer ingenuity of the adaptation: but the rest is in the infectious joyousness of the performances. I doubt that Mozart would ever have thought that his opera might have been reinterpreted as a fable from a South African township, but I can imagine his ghost laughing with delight.

Pictures: Top: Political Mother by Hofesh Shechter Company. Photo: Sean Fennessy; bottom, Pauline Malefane as Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute.

Political Mother, choreography and music by Hofesh Shechter. Musical collaborators Nell Catchpole and Yaron Engler, lighting design by Lee Curran, costumes by Merle Hensel. Performed by Hofesh Shechter Company. Melbourne Festival, Playhouse Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, until October 15.

The Magic Flute
, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, adapted and directed by Mark Dornford-May. Words and music by Masnidi Dyantyis, Msali Kgosidintsi, Pauline Malefane and Nolufefe Mtshabe. Choreography by Lungelo Ngamlana, lighting design by Mannie Manim, costumes by Leigh Bishop. Performed by Impempe Yomlingo. Melbourne Festival at the State Theatre, until October 16.

1 comment:

Hayley said...

I was tremendously disappointed with Political Mother. Uninspiring, bland, repetitive. I might even have put it down to the idea that perhaps the dancers all had food poisoning, had it not been obvious that the choreography was just downright poor.

The different sequences were samey and, although different things were generally happening in each, there was little to commend each idea.

Don't get me wrong - the concept of political oppression is a worthy subject for a performance. But neither Hofesh Schechter, nor his troupe of dancers, did it justice.

I've found before that in good dance productions, one or two of the dancers will really impress on me and become notable characters in their own right, but I didn't find that to be the case with Schechter's troupe. The nearest I got was some guy in dreadlocks and the least charismatic Woman in a Red Dress I've ever seen.