My literary week (11), in the theatre

I thought I’d join the world of fake news – why not? – and make my post title a lie, a double lie in fact. It’s not really “literary” (though it has its moments) and it’s not about a week (spanning, in fact, May 24 to June 13). However, the lies end here, as this post is number 11 in my “literary week” series, and it is all about theatre – of all sorts, the concert hall, the movie theatre, the dance theatre, and the drama theatre. Here goes …

Tafelmusik (Llewellyn Hall)

JS Bach, Leipzig

In May, we saw our third concert by the exciting Canadian baroque or early music ensemble, Tafelmusik. They are exciting, because their performances tend to be multimedia – comprising images and/or props, and, often, narration – because, uncommon for ensembles, they play from memory. That’s impressive on its own. The also play on period instruments.

This latest concert was titled Bach and his world and so, not surprisingly, was devoted to the music of JS Bach. But – and here comes a literary bit – it was tied together with a narration, presented by Blair Williams, telling the story of Leipzig and Bach’s time there. The narration started by introducing us to the patron gods of Leipzig, Apollo (the god of music) and Achilles (the god of trade and invention). From here we learnt about the invention of early musical instruments – and about those who made them – and about the making of the paper and pens needed to write the music. And so on … Given Bach was a church musician, we were intrigued by the focus on Greek Gods – but the reason was valid, and it was certainly illuminating.

It was a delightful and engaging concert – perhaps particularly so for us because we visited Leipzig and Bach’s St Thomas Church in 2013, but the buzz throughout the audience suggested we were not the only ones who enjoyed the concert.

The Merry Widow (Canberra Theatre)

A few days later and we were out again, this time to see the Australian Ballet’s latest performance, The Merry Widow, which was created for them in 1975. It’s a delightfully light ballet – a nice change from the dramas of Giselle (one of my favourites) and Swan Lake – and it was performed with a lovely sense of fun. The widow was danced by Dimity Azoury, who hails from neighbouring Queanbeyan.

One of the highlights for us, was seeing, in character roles, two older dancers we loved seeing in our earlier ballet-going days, David McAllister (now the Ballet’s artistic director) and Steven Heathcote. A delight.

We stayed for the post-show Q&A – good for avoiding the post-show car-park jam, as well as for learning something about the ballet. Four company members turned up – David McAllister, Dimity Azoury, another dancer, and the orchestra’s conductor. I got to ask my question about adapting to different stages, and we learnt about how much dancers eat, despite their slim appearance. It’s all that dancing you see!

Sense and sensibility (The Playhouse)

Then, two days after the ballet, it was back to the theatre to see a theatrical adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and sensibility. What a surprise that was. Adapted by New York playwright, Kate Hamill, and performed by the State Theatre Company of South Australia, it started off with a bang, and never let up until the end. (Check out this promo for the play’s Canberra season.) We lost a few audience members at interval, but most of us got into the style quickly and enjoyed Hamill’s take, which was …

… subversive in terms of the traditional Regency look, with its use of kazoos, roller skates, tricycles, and the like, and highly comic in tone. The unusual props effectively managed time and space, but also captured Austen’s cheeky humour. Best thing though was that all the fun and silliness didn’t detract from the core of the original. I loved how close the production stayed to Austen’s main themes – the havoc that can be wrought on people’s lives (both men and women) by lack of economic independence, the need to balance sense with sensibility, and the challenge of staying moral and true to self in a world where money is used to wield power over others. It was a hoot from beginning to end – but a throughtful, provocative hoot, for all that.

Tea with the Dames (Hoyts, Woden)

And then, phew, I had a break of nearly a week, until this week when I went to see the documentary, Tea with the Dames, not once, but twice – first with a friend, and then with Ma Gums. It was just as good second time around.

The Dames are four doyens of the British theatre – Dame Joan Plowright (b. 1929), Dame Maggie Smith (b. 1934), Dame Judi Dench (b. 1934), and Dame Eileen Atkins (b. 1934). They are filmed at Joan Plowright’s country home, talking to each other, and answering questions from the crew (off camera). There’s a lot of joyful, knowing laughter indicating long professional and personal friendship between the women; much sharing of stories and experiences; and, occasionally, wariness or even reluctance to talk about certain subjects (like ageing!) The documentary feels natural (even where they admit to feeling unnatural), but that’s not to say there’s no art here. It takes work to make something look natural.

In addition to providing insight into the acting life, the film is particularly delightful for the way it exposes the women’s individual personalities: the calm, philosophical Joan (you can tell why she appealed to Laurence Olivier after the dramas of his life with poor manic-depressive Vivien Leigh); the forthright, sometimes acerbic, but also occasionally vulnerable Maggie; the cheeky, light-hearted but also reflective Judi; and the quietly observant, precise Eileen.

Their conversations are interspersed with some wonderful, albeit often poor quality, archival footage, including of early film and stage performances, and more personal images such the women with their children.

The end result is a picture of four women who have lived long, who have survived a tough business, and who continue to engage actively with the world and each other – and who plan to do so until they shuffle off their mortal coils!

The beginning of nature (Premiere @ Canberra Theatre)

Finally, we attended the premiere of the Adelaide-based Australian Dance Theatre’s work, The beginning of nature. What a powerful, enthralling experience. We love modern dance, and this was mesmerising. We’d happily see it again – partly to draw more meaning out of it, though perhaps “meaning” is not the right word. It’s about, the program says, the “rhythms of nature”, rhythms that “permeate all aspects of the material universe.”

And so the 80-minute performance involved the nine dancers creating beautiful forms – sometimes using props like stones, sticks, plants, a conch shell – waving, flowing, leaping, crawling, forming one shape and then breaking apart to form another, and so on. Some of the movements/forms were so beautiful that I didn’t want them to end. The value in seeing the work again would be to rise above the spectacle to better “see” the nature, if that makes sense.

Garry Stewart, Australian Dance TheatreThe dancers wore gorgeous, dark teal-green androgynous costumes; the strong but not intrusive music, composed by Brendan Woithe, was played at the back of the stage by the Zephyr Quartet; and vocalists Karen Cummings and Heru Pinkasova, also at the back, sang in Kaurna (pronounced “garna”), the language of the people of the Adelaide Plains. Apparently, Kaurna was extinct until the local people started reconstructing it from the 2000 words documented in diaries by two German missionaries. (Another wonderful example of a project to recover indigenous language.) We were addressed by the company’s artistic director, Garry Stewart, at the end, and he paid tribute to their indigenous consultant, Jack Buckskin.

Stewart writes in the program that from the beginning he wanted to include human voices, and that “it made much more sense to work with the Kaurna language in a dance work that explores the patterns of nature, than English” because “indigenous languages have been spoken on the Australian continent for some 60,000 years, whereas English for only 230 years.” Fair point, and clearly the local indigenous people were on board with the collaboration. I should say here there’s no sense that the work aims to replicate or represent indigenous dance, but I would also say that in representing nature’s rhythms, it incorporates a sort of universal dance language that we can also see in indigenous dance.

And that, folks, is it for now.

Do you have any cultural outings to share?

18 thoughts on “My literary week (11), in the theatre

  1. I saw Tea with the Dames this week and loved it. See Lost in Paris if it comes there. Loved it too, then Wed we saw a production of Pride and Prejudice at the theatre which was also fun. I see so much theatre. 7 to nine performances a year at Theatre Royal and five to six performances at the Playhouse in Hobart. Not to mention my weekly play reading classes through U3A. I love the theatre. Sounds like you have had a great time. The Dark Mofo festival is on this week from MONA. Friday night they buried a man under the main thoroughfare street in the city centre. They dig him out Sunday night. Performance art! This city gets crazy at times. 😁😁😁🐧

    • We go to more music and then dance than theatre, Pam, but are increasing the last now. We used to always go to Bell Shakespeare. Do you have favourite playwrights?

      I have a friend in Hobart this week and she’d told me about this man. Couldn’t do that – the idea of being buried alive is a nightmare of mine.

        • I don’t see enough to have favourite playwrights.

          I heard an interview with him after the event – I guess he had to be prepared for the hoons, people being who they are!!

  2. It sounds like you experienced some unique and very worthy entertainment. Tafelmusik sounds especially fascinating acting. If it ever tours my area I must be sure to catch it.

    That production of Sense and Sensibility sounds so creative.

  3. And there you go! I’m envious of your life. I often went to the ballet when I was a student and one daughter did years of it, we thought she’d get into the VCA (they thought she showed a tendency to be plump. She stayed tiny for another 20 years), but she wasn’t interested in going to watch. La Fille Mal Gardee my favourite of those 1970s times. I thought S&S was about tempering sensibility with sense, but I’m sure both interpretations are true.

    • Thanks Bill. Like all Austens I’d say S&S is about lots of things – some personal/character-oriented (the sense vs sensibility), but others more social. I think the opening with Mr Dashwood’s death, and John Dashwood being talked out of helping his sisters (as his father made him promise) by his wife sets the scene for a social or sociopolitical theme too. The plot hangs as much if not more around the contour of money than the sense/sensibility issue I think.

      Glad you like the ballet too. “Experts” never know really, do they!

  4. What a lovely few weeks you’ve had! S&S on (or with) roller skates is such an unexpected idea! The kazoo is my musical instrument of choice when I really want to annoy He Who Eats All of Our Leftovers. Swan Lake on ice is being advertised in Melbourne now, but I’m too short of time to do anything except work, commute and do housework and family things on the weekends. Roll on, retirement!

    • Retirement is wunderbar Rose! We are certainly going to more shows/concerts now than when we were working, though we started to increase attendance once the kids were in their late teens and didn’t need us at home to supervise homework, cook all meals, drive them places. Every part of life has its pros and cons. Enjoy yours while you can! When I see mums out with their children, I have little flashes of nostalgia – they were such busy, engaged, meaningful times – but then, I admit, I think about the tiredness and am glad I had the experience but am elsewhere now!

      Love your kazoo story. Eating up all the leftovers would infuriate me – I think I’d get myself a trumpet!

  5. Hi Sue, what great and varied entertainment you have been enjoying. I was supposed to see Tea with The Dames last week but had the dreaded cold. Tomorrow I attend a concert of Baroque Masterpieces; and two weeks ago I attended Mozart,Mendelssohn and more music. My local council puts on free classical musical concerts throughout the month.Today our Op Shop ran a very successful fashion show with clothing and items from our op shop. There was a little bit of theatre in our presentation! I will be in Hobart for the next 5 weeks from next Wednesday, and hope to enjoy their ‘theatre’.

    • Thanks Meg … I enjoyed hearing about your cultural adventures too. The OpShop fashion show sounds like fun. Did it result in more sales? And did you take a turn on the cat walk??

      Enjoy Hobart. Always a great place to visit. I guess you are seeing your grandsons?

  6. Hi Sue, no cat walk for me. We had a very successful day. I am off to Hobart to look after the house, chickens and dog while my daughter and her family are off to Canada. I will only see my grandsons for about 5 days.

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