Melbourne festival 2016: deeply personal melds with public spectacle in triumph for curator

There are few reviews that centre around the programmers of theatre festivals but perhaps there should be more of them. Melbourne 2016 is the third festival I’ve attended that’s been programmed by Jonathan Holloway – the British artistic director whose previous tenure at the Perth International Arts Festival was so lauded – and I’ve seen enough now to trace the influence of his predilections within what he commissions and presents.

At Holloway’s 2014 Perth festival, while seeing the extraordinary centrepiece The Refusal of Time by South African artist William Kentridge, I realised that my cumulative experience of shows at that festival had been a guided journey through the means by which art, combined with place, can displace an individual’s relationship to time. I had walked through both Perth’s Northbridge and a curious time-loop within the promenade piece You Once Said Yes, and experienced a deliberate, time-resistant replica of Billie Whitelaw’s performance in Beckett’s Not I… when performed – to Whitelaw’s precise instructions – by Lisa Dwan.

With his 2016 Melbourne program, Holloway seems to be curating artistic explorations in which interior realisations reckon with the public self – take Haircuts by Children, where the public sit down to have their hair cut by, and to talk to, children; and The Money, where participants each put $20 on the table, to debate with each other about the best way to spend the accumulated pot of cash in front of an audience. It is also apparent in the three shows of my viewing: Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour, War and Peace and Robert Lepage’s 887.

Produced by the National Theatre of Scotland, Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour is something akin to a girl-group musical. Six young female performers inhabit the characters of six members of a Catholic school choir on a day trip to compete in an Edinburgh competition, as well as all the other characters they meet along the way.

Caroline Deyga (Chell), Kirsty MacLaren (Manda), Melissa Allan (Orla), Frances Mayli McCann (Kylah), Dawn Sievewright (Fionnula), Karen Fishwick (Kay), in Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour at Melbourne festival 2016. Photograph: Manuel Harlan

Backed by a band, the girls narrate the various collisions of sex, booze, longing and fragility that provoke them from girlhood into their individual realisations of adulthood, all to a six-part harmony soundtrack that runs from Handel to Bob Marley via the tunes of ELO. Amid much swearing and enthusiastic sexual precociousness there are tender moments of personal confession drawn so carefully from the talented cast that the effect is surprise devastation. Rarely in the theatre does one find themselves applauding a happy ending while somehow crying at the same time.

There’s no crying at the Gob Squad’s War and Peace; the popular Berlin-based ensemble aim squarely at the intellect rather than the heart, exploring the process of realising oneself as a microparticle within an overwhelming superstructure of historical legacy. The metaphor used is the impossibility of giving due consideration to Tolstoy’s epic novel War & Peace – which considers the same subject – within the restrictive format of the show itself.

Gob Squad’s production of War and Peace

‘Structuring a show around the notion of a project doomed to failure has inevitable results’: Gob Squad’s production of War and Peace. Photograph: David Baltzer

Re-enacting the setting of the salon scene that opens the novel, the Squad reduce the complex personal biographies of volunteers taken from the audience to snippets of overheard conversation. They perform fashion parades that reduce the novel’s characters to gestures and poses, and condense the histories of complex and influential individuals into the length of tweets – interspersing it all with cat videos, and Coldplay tunes played on the harp.

Structuring a show around the notion of a project doomed to failure has inevitable results, and while the point is made that the performers themselves live in the vast shadows of their own antecedents, Gob Squad’s 20 years of post-dramatic innovation in the theatre has seen their own stage tricks so popularised that the presentation is rendered un-unique. The confessional closeness offered by the performers to the audience makes the production feel a bit like attending a party full of cool kids who turn out to be surprisingly warm and nice but as a work of theatre this one – amongst their many finer – is a jejune offering.

Robert Lepage’s 887 is anything but. Physically recreating in miniature the Quebec city apartment building that was his childhood home between 1960-70, the renowned Canadian theatremaker walks through the rooms of the three-bedroom “memory palace” that housed him, his working-class, French-speaking parents, three siblings and a grandmother with Alzheimer’s during the years that class tension and discrimination provoked the Québécois separatist movement to violence and revolt.

The conceit is that Lepage is using the old mnemonic technique of attaching words to childhood memories to retain the lines of a poem he has has been asked to memorise and perform.

Robert Lepage performs 887

‘Days out from the performance I am still electric with its impact’: Robert Lepage performs 887. Photograph: E Labbe

Lepage revisits political memories amidst those of his overworked father, represented in a miniature car, portrays the tired emotional lives of neighbours and relatives with dolls, and recreates his current kitchen to argue about his obituary with an old friend. What emerges is that Lepage’s psychological resistance to the poem lies in reawakening painful memories of a loving family living within a social injustice.

An extraordinary scene, in which an adolescent Lepage is subjected to stop-and-search by a soldier, under a soft rain of maple leaves, articulates a frightening personal realisation that, “The bombs aren’t in my bag / they’re in my head”. So ferocious is the reckoning of the child to the adult, the history to the present, the individual to what is global, that when the poem is, finally, performed, the effect is a roll of thunder from the stage, a summoned storm.
I have never experienced anything quite like it in the theatre, and days out from the performance I am still electric with its impact. Such effects are only possible with the technical flawlessness of artists at the height of their self-realisation, and gratitude is due to Holloway not merely for programming Lepage, but programming 887 within a complement of others that affirm and nuance a broader conversation about these subjects and their value.

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