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A lovely night out … at the theatre

March 7, 2018

You know the year has really started when the concerts and shows start up again – and for us they’ve started with a bang. We had three events in four days: A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer (Playhouse) on Saturday night, The Weight of Light (Street Theatre) late Sunday afternoon, and the first Musica Viva concert (Llewellyn Hall) on Tuesday night. This post, though, will just discuss the middle one, because it’s Australian, having been written by local author Nigel Featherstone who has featured on this blog several times. I’m not, however, an experienced theatre reviewer. I don’t have the language, and as a reader, I find it challenging seeing something only once, and not being able to go back to check something out, as you can with a book!

The Weight of Light

I’ve been surprised in recent years to discover how many Australian novelists are also librettists. David Malouf, Peter Goldsworthy, Dorothy Porter (ok a poet but also a verse novelist), and Louis Nowra immediately spring to mind – and now, local novelist and short story writer Nigel Featherstone can also claim this title. Described as a song cycle, The Weight of Light had its origins in a residency the very peaceful, non-warlike Featherstone had at the Australian Defence Force Academy in late 2013. I remember it well because he wrote about it on his blog. It all came to a head in 2014, when time came for him to do a presentation on his three months. He wrote:

I already had the questions – What is a man?  Who is a good man?  Who is a good being? – but I didn’t have the stories, or anything remotely resembling stories.  Bearing in mind that my intention in doing the residency wasn’t to write about war as such; I’m disinterested in guns, and the infinitely complex political contexts require a much bigger brain than mine.  I was interested in the small moments, the hidden fears and thoughts and dreams.

So there, in 2014, he had an idea in mind about soldiers. Then, later that year, as Featherstone tells it, Paul Scott-Williams from the Goulburn Regional Conservatorium met Nigel and told him that he wanted to create “an original song cycle”. He felt that “art song did not have much of an Australian tradition”, and wanted to do something about it, starting with Nigel as librettist. From there, the project slowly grew. Nigel has documented the process on his blog. The end result was the highly moving performance we saw on Sunday afternoon.

How to describe it? We entered the lovely Street Theatre to be faced with a minimally lit stage, comprising a minimal set. There were two large crisscrossed beams, a wire wending across the stage like a fence, brown fabric on the floor emulating a river, and, to the right, a grand piano. The show started with Alan Hicks on piano, with singing starting up soon after from somewhere backstage. The voice, coming from baritone Michael Lampard, turned out to be a mother calling her soldier-son home to the farm.

From here Lampard, with Hicks at the piano, took us on a journey, through fourteen songs, in which the soldier faces a tragedy at home which recalls to his mind a secret tragedy that had occurred during his tour (that’s a weird word really, isn’t it, for a military posting) of Afghanistan. It’s a dark story, a grim one at times, as the soldier confronts a number of challenges in his life. But, it’s also a beautiful show. If that makes sense.

This was the whole package – words, music, performance, set and lighting. Lampard’s vocal range was impressive, enabling him to differentiate characters (his mother, father, girlfriend) as they interacted with him. The lighting remained dark throughout, in keeping with the theme, though placement and levels did vary with the mood. The set was in that modern minimalist style in which a few objects are used to convey different ideas or places at different times – in this case, both the field of war and the fields of a farm. The two large semi-reclined crossed beams also, I thought, conveyed an idea of the cross, which, at one of the darker points in the performance, our soldier seemed to shoulder, recalling Christ’s journey to Calvary.

And then there was James Humberstone’s music. It included elements, we felt, of art-song, opera and church music, and was completely involving – both the sound of it and the performance of it, which included both Lampard and Hicks bowing the piano strings to create a mournful atmosphere. Other effects included paper being laid across the strings creating a fluttery, buzzing effect, and Hicks hitting the strings with small mallets. None of these were tricks for tricks’ sake, but enhanced the meaning or mood of the story.

I found these demos below on SoundCloud. They’re from earlier in the development when the program was still called Homesong, but they give an idea of the range we heard, from the sweetly lyrical to the more sombre, minimalist pieces.

I would love to be able to share some of the words with you, but not having the libretto and having only seen the performance once, that’s not possible. I did find it hard to hear them all with so much going on, but I loved the poetry of them, the use of repetition, and the imagery – of birds in particular. In the second last song, I think it was, our soldier needs to make a decision. Can he be strong, or will he give up? “Be brave enough to stay” is the call to him. The program ends, happily, on a note of hope.

Mr Gums, two acquaintances and I enjoyed, at the end, sharing notes on the performance, combining our various impressions. We all felt we’d experienced something special. I’d say Paul Scott-Williams has got what he wanted – a quality contribution to Australia’s art-song repertoire, with a story that’s right up to the moment in its concerns. I hope it gets more outings.

The Weight of Light
Words by Nigel Featherstone
Music by James Humberstone
The Street Theatre, 4 March 2018, 4pm

14 Comments leave one →
  1. March 8, 2018 6:30 am

    Thanks for sharing this experience. Nigel is a twitter/facebook/instagram friend and I’ve followed his anxieties and excitement as this project slowly became a reality. Sounds like a remarkable evening. How wonderful!

    • March 8, 2018 7:40 am

      It was wonderful Joe … an excellent achievement. I suspect all artists are full of self-doubt but he needn’t have been. Thanks for commenting.

  2. March 8, 2018 8:28 am

    Thanks for this review, WG. It was a remarkable performance, wasn’t it? I thought the setting, lighting, words, music and singing all combined incredibly well. I can only imagine what a long, slow process it must have been to bring it all together. I hope it goes on to do well.

    • March 8, 2018 9:16 am

      It was great Robyn, wasn’t it. The whole thing was so intelligent, and yet warmly so, not overtly calculatingly. Were you there on Saturday? We had the other play at the Playhouse, so couldn’t make opening night. I bet it was a great atmosphere.

      • March 9, 2018 10:24 am

        Yes, you’re so right — so professional and well-crafted, but not calculatingly. That’s a great description of Nigel’s writing, now you mention it! I went on Sunday arvo — is that when you were there? If you were, I missed you. I gather numbers were higher on Saturday.

        • March 9, 2018 3:09 pm

          Yes I was there on Sunday too Robyn. Fancy not seeing you! I’m pleased to hear Saturday had bigger numbers. We had the Playhouse that night but in a way that late afternoon time was rather lovely.

  3. March 8, 2018 10:18 am

    This sounds great… I wonder if i’s coming to Melbourne.

    • March 8, 2018 10:46 am

      Not at the moment Lisa though I think the Baritone is from there. However I think I saw on Nigel’s twitter feed that touring is being discussed.it

  4. March 8, 2018 6:30 pm

    This sounds really fantastic. What you wrote about wanting to go back and check things out again is something that I often feel after watching a live performance or sometimes even s new film that I do not have easiy access too. I wonder if this is typical of committed readers or if it is something more general.

    • March 8, 2018 7:17 pm

      Yes, exactly Brian, films are the same for me too. It’s usually possible to see a movie again but not always easy. It would be interesting to know if this issue is more common among readers.

  5. March 10, 2018 9:51 pm

    I saw this tonight – fantastic show. An absolute evocation of trauma, and then just the hope of redemption. Oh, I think it’s going to stay with me for ages. What an amazing performance.

    • March 11, 2018 8:52 am

      At Goulburn Sylvia? So glad you loved it too. Hopefully all this good reporting will result in its gang to more places.

      • March 11, 2018 9:37 am

        At Goulburn yes. It’s still with me this morning. Wasn’t the music lovely? And the voice! I’m so glad I saw it.

        • March 11, 2018 9:40 am

          It just all worked so well together. Words, music, voice, set, lighting.

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