Review

Doyle’s ghostly dreams delight

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Perth Festival review: STRUT Dance and Maxine Doyle with Tura New Music, Sunset ·
Sunset Heritage Precinct, 7 February ·
Review by Nina Levy ·

The world of Maxine Doyle’s dance theatre work Sunset at first seems benign. On arrival, we are instructed to “follow the fairy lights” to a charmingly makeshift reception area, complete with bar and outdoor tables. A violinist (Brian Kruger) plays and as he wends his way towards one of the dilapidated old buildings that make up the Sunset Heritage Precinct, we follow him, Pied Piper style. So far, so whimsical… but once we are ushered inside, it’s a different story.

UK-based Doyle, who has collaborated with WA’s STRUT Dance to create Sunset, is renowned for her immersive theatre works. True to form, there’s a sense of falling down the rabbit hole as we cross the threshold of the now-decommissioned Sunset hospital. We are shepherded through to the performance space, passing rooms that are awash with red dirt – “I almost expect a body to be buried inside,” whispers my plus one – before arriving in a large hall, scattered haphazardly with vintage metal chairs on which we may sit.

Ghost-like, a dozen or so characters waft and wander amongst us, a white uniformed nurse, a glitter-gilded man, a stumbling drunk, a black clad glamour-girl. Accompanied by a string quartet playing original compositions by Rachael Dease, vignettes happen in various locations, so that we’re constantly swivelling to see the next instalment. At first the atmosphere is Tim Burton-esque, funny with a strong dash of spooky to keep you on your toes. On the stage, a dancer (Viola Iida) performs a balletic solo with a mini-corps (corpse?) of three skeletons. Behind the kitchen counter, a manic cook (Timothy Green) prepares a cake, as dancers’ limbs slip and slide in and out of view.

Amidst the audience, the one named character, Alfred Ganz (Humphrey Bower), recites heavily accented poetry and reminisces about days past. The mood shifts and saddens as ghosts from the past seem to rise and envelop us. The string score is at once poignant and discomforting. At the moonlit windows, figures creep, collapse and recover in a sculptural and spectral parade. Drums sound from unseen speakers – it’s as though the rafters of the building are rumbling. Even when the characters unite for a joyous folk-style romp, it’s undercut by the minor key mournfulness of the string quartet.

Rachael Dease’s rich and haunting vocals are key in creating the sense of otherworldliness that pervades this work. Brendan Hanson’s voice, in contrast, brings warmth and nostalgia to the proceedings. The pair’s final, plaintive duet is achingly beautiful and a highlight of the evening. Dease is to be congratulated on her evocative score  (which I would purchase, should a recording be made, hint hint) and sound design.

This work is beautifully and sensitively performed by the cast of twelve dancers and actors, and five musicians, and there are numerous moments that could be named as stand outs. In particular, though, Natalie Allen’s brief whirling solo had a bird-like intensity that was compelling, while Sarah Mealor was spectral in hers, a dark wraith weaving a spell on the audience.

Doyle and her creative team lead us into a place of ghostly dreams and haunting memories. It’s well worth a visit… but if you haven’t booked you’d better get in quick.

Sunset plays Sunset Heritage precinct until February 17.

Pictured top: A joyous folk-style romp. Photo: Simon Pynt.

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