Gabriella Munro as May and Sally Clune as Cousin. Photo: Susie Blatchford.
Immersive Experience, News, Performing arts, Reviews, Theatre

A deep dive into the heart of darkness

Review: Feet First Collective, S-27 ⋅
Fremantle Arts Centre ⋅
Review by Steven Cohen ⋅

There’s something about dystopian reality that bites, that shakes and shudders at our sensibilities. And when that “something” manifests itself in the theatre it leaves a discerning mark on the audience.

From Orwell’s’ 1984 to The Handmaids Tale, we’re used to dystopian thrillers. Audiences seem drawn to alien settings and alienated characters. The stories are riveting, the dialogue terse and the scenes dramatic.

But dystopian drama is much rarer because the style is founded in science fiction. And a theatre, by its very nature,  is a forum for collective reflection, drawing out participation and expression of popular concerns.

Good dystopian theatre will illuminate the urban and reflect the irreparable. Perhaps more than that, dystopian theatre gives us a chance to recall the true horrors of horrors so that we might learn something and begin again.

Sarah Grochala’s play S-27, first produced in London a decade ago, is better than good.  It is both tense and disturbing in recounting the tales from Khmer Rouge Cambodia.

Aptly staged in the historical asylum of the Fremantle Arts Centre, local producers Teresa Izzard and Lauren Beeton successfully manage to immerse the audience into a universal atrocity, balancing the cultural intricacies of Pol Pot’s ruthless ideology with the indignation of his horror.

To begin, we are stripped of our belongings, given numbers, separated from our partners and hoarded into a small slither of a room.  Violence is within earshot and sometimes seen.  Posters illuminate the blankness of the walls – English renditions from Pol Pot’s Little Red Book – illuminate the extremism of the revolution.  Some of the audience are pulled away. Most stay in situ and in line. Quiet and following.

Eventually we arrive in a cold dank old hall, replete with a single line of facing parallel seating with a single forward fronting chair perched alone in between. An old-style camera, the type my dad used to carry, sits on a tripod aimed at the empty chair. The theatre space is more a thriller scene. The audience become intimate witnesses.

Then we meet May, cold and tearless, whose job is to photograph the living dead. As May’s story slowly unwinds, so does she and we become witness to the frailty of human emotion and what it takes to survive a holocaust. Compassionately played by Gabriella Munro, May is the protagonist whose interactions with those she photographs underpins the production.

The seven supporting cast members are nameless. Sheathed either in black police garb or for a few, they serve as photographic fodder. Their acting is tight and well-controlled, blending erratically into the catastrophic nightmare.

Balancing the well-constructed performances is original music by Rachael Dease, haunting sound by John Congrear and claustrophobic lighting by Andrew Portwine, who successfully encase the audience’s senses in a confronting maelstrom.

This is a story that must be told.  It is uncomfortable, horrific and bloody, but important for our own humanity.  S-27 is a gem of a play.  We are lucky to have such wonderful talent in our city.

S-27 continues until July 21.

Pictured top: May (Gabriella Munro) and Cousin (Sally Clune) as photographer and subject. Photo: Susie Blatchford.

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A woman singing against a pink drape.
Features, Music, News, Opinion

Balancing the scale

Did anyone else notice?

Featured among the international artists appearing at the Perth Festival were two local composers, and they were both women.

Cat Hope’s searing opera Speechless made a profound impact on audiences at its premiere and scores by Rachael Dease were a large part of the success of the daring dance theatre work Sunset (STRUT Dance and Maxine Doyle, with Tura New Music) and the children’s theatre piece A Ghost in My Suitcase (Barking Gecko Theatre).

A female singer on a dark stage
Composer Rachael Dease in “Sunset”. Photo: Anthony Tran.

It went unmentioned – as it should. A woman composer headlining a national festival shouldn’t be exceptional. Yet until very recently it has been. As we celebrate International Women’s Day today it is worth remembering that the playing field has not been even for women in the arts and in many ways they are still playing catch up.

Everything I’ve ever wanted to do would’ve been easier had I
been a boy. But never mind, I never paid much attention to it,
I just marched in and there I was.

These fighting words come from Peggy Glanville-Hicks (1912-1990), arguably the most famous female composer in her lifetime and one of the first Australian women to march into the male-dominated world of composition.

Back then the costs were high: Glanville-Hicks’ colleague Margaret Sutherland was married to a psychiatrist who thought a woman wanting to compose music was a sign of mental illness, while many women had to lie about their gender to be published. Positions on the boards and in the institutions were held by men, who also received the majority of the commissions. In spite of this Sutherland almost single-handedly pioneered modernism in Australian music and in 1938 Glanville-Hicks was the first person to represent Australia at the International Society of Contemporary Music.

Australian women have made a significant contribution to Australian music history, a subject I researched and celebrated in my book Women of Note; the rise of Australian women composers (Fremantle Press 2012). As I pieced together the missing jigsaw pieces of our music history it became startlingly clear that our women composers have substantially shaped our history, often punching above their male contemporaries and often against great odds.

Today Dease, Hope and their female colleagues make up around 27 percent of Australian composers, sound artists and improvising performers. Sadly our concert programs (in any musical genre) don’t reflect anywhere near this statistic. Musicologist Sally Macarthur noted in 2013 that only 11 percent of the works in Australian new art music concerts advertised online featured works by women. And you can scour the West Australian Symphony Orchestra’s 2019 program without finding any female composers represented.

Album cover for Women of NoteFortunately some organisations and individuals are rethinking their approach to inclusive programming and commissioning. ABC Classic has begun to intentionally program more music by women on its airwaves and, as part of International Women’s Day, has scheduled four days of music entirely by women. The station has also released an album titled Women of Note which celebrates 100 years of music by Australian women. This contribution towards a more balanced canon of music is a crucial part of rewriting history and normalising gender diversity for future generations.

The album includes music by Sutherland, Glanville-Hicks and other trailblazing works including Miriam Hyde’s first Piano Concerto, premiered in 1934 by the composer with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, plus Dulcie Holland’s highly regarded Piano Trio, a work that was unperformed for nearly fifty years before it was unearthed and premiered at the Adelaide Composing Women Festival in 1991.

The album also pays tribute to living composers such as Anne Boyd whose As I Crossed a Bridge of Dreams (1975) was an early precursor of minimalism. Elena Kats-Chernin, arguably Australia’s most popular and best known composer, is represented with her famous Russian Rag while Yuin woman Brenda Gifford brings insights from her Indigenous culture to the Western classical tradition. And composers such as Sally Whitwell, Maria Grenfell, Kate Moore, Nicole Murphy and Olivia Bettina Davies represent the myriad ways in which classical music is developing in the 21st century.

Which brings us back to Cat Hope and Rachael Dease and their fresh, absolutely unique contributions to the Perth Festival. I hope I wasn’t the only one who noticed. I hope curators, directors and commissioners noticed. I hope commentators, creators and the audience noticed. And I hope future generations of gender diverse composers noticed.

– Rosalind Appleby

To celebrate International Women’s Day Seesaw has copies of ABC Classic’s album Women of Note and Appleby’s book Women of Note; the rise of Australian women composers to give away. To enter, email hello@seesawmag.com.au with “Women of note comp” in the subject heading. Competition closes 5pm, March 11.

Pictured top: Soloist Karina Utomo in Cat Hope’s “Speechless”. Photo: Rachael Barrett.

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Dancers moving in a circle, folk-style.
Dance, News, Perth Festival, Reviews

Doyle’s ghostly dreams delight

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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Like Embracing Ice by Rachael Dease
Calendar, Contemporary music, July 18, June 18, May 18, Music, Sound

Sound: Rachael Dease | Like Embracing Ice

26 May — 15 July @ Fremantle Arts centre ·
Presented by Fremantle Arts Centre ·

The human ability to deny death and mortality mirrors our denial of climate change and the rapid destruction of the earth’s ice covered poles.

Accomplished WA sound artist and composer Rachael Dease spent a month in the Arctic Circle in 2017 during the midnight sun, sailing amongst the collapsing glaciers.

For Like Embracing Ice she has scored a work with audio captured from the depths of the Arctic Sea, using hydrophones floating under drifting icebergs and microphones lowered into glacial cracks.

Dease graduated with Honours in Composition from WAAPA. Her award-winning practice encompasses the realms of art music, pop culture, theatre and science.

More info: www.fac.org.au/whats-on/post/rachael-dease-like-embracing-ice/
Email: artscentre@fremantle.wa.gov.au

Pictured: Rachael Dease, Like Embracing Ice (Ytre Norskøya Votive #11) (detail), 2017. Photography by Rachael Dease.

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