The past couple of years have made me think a lot about what I want from art, a human activity that can seem singularly useless in a time of emergency. One thing I definitely do know is that I don’t want anything from art that I can get from the news.
Perhaps because of the rolling boycotts of Russian culture, during the festival’s opening weekend much was made of how Barrie Kosky’s production of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s last opera, The Golden Cockerel, a satirical fairytale about an aged Tsar pursuing war against his neighbours, was urgently relevant after Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. It placed this absurd and sometimes beautiful opera into a frame that did it no favours at all.
The opera is certainly about the delusions of empire, but focusing narrowly on Putin’s Russia obscures the point. While it was written as a satire of 19th-century Russian autocrats, as a metaphor it has as much to say to the imperial fantasies of the West. It’s most biting when it satirises the unthinking loyalty of the crowd, who mourn the Tsar as a great leader, despite his bad habit of executing people.
The Golden Cockerel – enjoying its Australian premiere more than a century after it was written – features some of Rimsky-Korsakov’s most lively music and a sparkling libretto by poet Vladimir Ivanovich Belsky. But, aside from some brief excursions into camp, Kosky’s production is notably austere.
Rufus Didwiszus’s set takes its cue from the stage description for Waiting for Godot: “A country road. A tree. Evening.” Tsar Dodon (a bravura performance from Pavlo Hunka) is an old man in grubby underwear, his rank indicated by a modest golden crown. His army is represented by a dancing chorus in absurd giant horse heads and suspenders. The Tsar’s two sons are interchangeable men in grey suits who kill each other in the second act and thereafter are seen as headless corpses hanging upside down from the trees, this time recalling a scene from Goya’s The Disasters of War.
Perhaps what dates the opera most is its rampant orientalism – in the second act, the mystical east is represented by a seductive and deadly Tsarina (Venera Gimadieva). To be fair, that’s a hangover from its source texts, the 19th-century American writer Washington Irving, via Pushkin. Despite its mischievous footnote, which claims that nothing in this story is real except the astrologer and the Tsarina, The Golden Cockerel remains rooted in its time – an amusing and impressive 19th-century curiosity.
At another scale, Donmar Warehouse’s adaptation of José Saramago’s novel Blindness is more intimate and more contemporary, and so the more frightening. The conceit of the novel is that a plague afflicts an entire country with blindness, causing total social breakdown. It follows the story of a woman (Juliet Stevenson) whose doctor husband is infected by a patient and who pretends she is blind in order to follow him into quarantine.
Simon Stephens’ impeccable adaptation distils this complex novel into an economical and gripping script, delivered as an immersive sound and light performance in the barn-like space of the Queen’s Theatre. It moves seamlessly from the third-person narration that sets the general scene, to first person as the story focuses on the doctor’s wife. Stevenson’s performance is remarkable: it’s a truism that an actor’s magic is in their voice, but this performance proves it.
In Walter Meierjohann’s production we sit wearing headphones on isolated pairs of black chairs, underneath a geometric lighting rig of neon lights. It features an astounding sound design, perhaps the most arresting I have experienced. The directional sound permits every nuance of Stevenson’s performance to be viscerally experienced. At one point during one of the regular blackouts, I was convinced that actors were present in the room: I was all but certain I could feel Stevenson’s breath on the back of my neck as she whispered urgently in my ear.
Blindness is, in so many ways, a stunning, rigorous, moving production. The one issue again stems from its source material: Saramago’s use of blindness as a metaphor for human abjection. Even when I was most enthralled by the narrative, I kept thinking about the many people who are already Blind and who are nevertheless able to function perfectly well and live full and satisfying lives.
If nothing else, this production demonstrated the power of sound, how it can create an entire imaginative world. Why did the nameless heroine have to be sighted? Surely those already Blind would be the ones with sudden advantage in this world? And surely that’s a more interesting story than the rather conventional road down which Saramago led his metaphor? It made me wish that Stephens’ adaptation had been less faithful.
Watershed: The Death of Dr Duncan has no such issue: the politics are right on. This opera recounts the 1972 gay hate murder of Dr Ian Duncan, a lecturer at the University of Adelaide who was thrown into the River Torrens by a group of men and drowned, and how his death was a turning point in the decriminalisation of homosexuality. With a score by Joe Twist, the libretto – part sung, part spoken – is co-written by Christos Tsiolkas and Alana Valentine.
The first few minutes, as a suspended man twists above the stage as if helpless in a deadly current to a surging choral lament, is enrapturing: a powerful, unforgettable theatrical moment. Nothing else afterwards quite reached that peak.
Directed by Neil Armfield, Watershed isn’t so much an opera as an oratorio, with the music shifting across a range of registers, from classical choral sequences to searing electric guitar. The dramaturgy moves unsettlingly between moments of genuine lyric uplift and a paint-by-numbers chronology of event that’s cumulatively dulling.
About halfway through I began to tire of the lecture and started to think of all the other ways this story might be told. Moisés Kaufman’s classic 2000 play The Laramie Project, for instance, is a stunning piece of verbatim theatre about the 1998 murder of gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard that does so much more than simply recount events, creating a collective complexity of response that this opera never quite attains.
There’s a strength in the crudity of direct statement that creates undeniably memorable moments, sudden swerves into choruses of genuine emotional power. It’s undermined by the clunky verse; after an hour, the forced rhymes began to thud painfully on my ear. This one really is a curate’s egg, but the matinee I saw received an enthusiastic standing ovation.
Perhaps the most wholly satisfying show I saw in the opening weekend was the most modest. Juliet & Romeo is dance theatre directed and conceived by Ben Duke of British company Lost Dog. Its conceit is that Romeo and Juliet survive, get married, and now, 20 years on, are attempting to resuscitate a faltering relationship by re-enacting their lives together before an audience. But over the course of the performance, what begins as a comic riff on the mundanity of coupledom becomes a surprisingly affecting meditation on human fragility, contingency and love.
Performed by Kip Johnson and Solène Weinachter, it moves between directly addressing the audience and dance movement, with a soundtrack that ranges across popular hits: The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel. In the choreography are traces of the human complexity of les ballets C de la B’s Alain Platel, if less confrontingly rendered; but I mostly found myself thinking of French choreographer Jérôme Bel, the ways the readymade emotion of music is rendered unexpectedly moving by recontextualisation and the faux-naive performance of death.
Most of all, this performance captured something of the detail, delicacy and grace of the real. In this strange, terrifying twilight in which we all now live, that felt like a miracle.
Christos Tsiolkas is The Saturday Paper’s film critic.
The Adelaide Festival continues until March 20.
CULTRE 23rd Biennale of Sydney
Venues throughout Sydney, until June 13
LITERATURE Blak & Bright
Venues throughout Melbourne, March 17-20
COMEDY Canberra Comedy Festival
Venues throughout Canberra, March 16-26
THEATRE Get Up Mum
Theatre Royal, Hobart, March 17-19
DANCE Flux Job
Arts House, Melbourne, March 16-20
Sydney Opera House, until March 14
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 12, 2022 as "The grace of the real".
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