Saturday, 7 March 1998

Adelaide Festival 1998: Theatre -

Adelaide Festival 1998: Theatre Program  Week One
Reviewed by Kate Herbert in early March, 1998
Published in Herald Sun.

Robert LePage, Seven Streams of the River Ota
La Tristeza Complice by Belgian Ballet C de la B
Snakesong: Le Pouvoir by Needcompany Belgium
The Architect's Walk's
TS Eliot's Wasteland by Fiona Shaw / Debra Warner

It's inevitable. After every Adelaide Festival, I return exhausted but inspired. The sheer vitality of the place, teeming with artists both international and local, creates an environment of creative energy that cannot be reproduced in any other time or place.

Robin Archer's theatre program promised much and gave even more. There was a thread of urban decadence and sadness throughout many shows, a darkness relieved by hysterical, inexplicable laughter or deeply spiritual moments.

It is impossible to adequately translate into language the experience of the most compelling pieces. The hypnotic effect of seven and a half hours in the theatre watching Robert LePage's Seven Streams of the River Ota, is indescribable.

The final poignant moments of La Tristeza Complice (Belgian Ballet C de la B) are profoundly moving. I leapt to my feet. It was an overwhelming assault on the senses, slamming into the solar plexus with its chaotic characters and nervy cacophony of movement.

The best shows are unpredictable. During Snakesong: Le Pouvoir (Needcompany Belgium) it is impossible to anticipate what they might do next. Writer/director Jan Lauwers' exploration of sex and violence through variations on the myth of Leda and the Swan is brutal, sexual and bizarre. It breaks form, adheres to no theatrical conventions and yet the actors are exceptional and the experience unforgettable -particularly my panic attack during the ten minute total black out.

Most shows concentrate on the visual. In addition to its panoply of characters, River Ota has a superbly designed traditional Japanese house which transforms into a cramped New York tenement,  bleak concentration camp, lavish Amsterdam library or backstage at a Feydeau farce.

Director Mary Moore's set for Masterkey is a series of movable wardrobes stuffed with the personal memorabilia of six alienated old Japanese women in a Tokyo boarding house. The Architect's Walk's spare birch tree design is simple but evocative and Snakesong's minimalist design dots the space with marbled pedestals and a dead swan. Designers are now becoming directors.

Video technology is omnipresent. In Ota, it fills the rice paper screens, recalls past or evokes new worlds. In Masterkey, it spills over wardrobes, creating new dimensions and surprisingly emotional responses. Natural Life transformed a 19th century landscape with footage of Australiana.

Natural Life has live piano accompaniment like a Victorian melodrama. Snakesong, filled the space with provocatively loud, recorded original music while La Tristeza, used ten onstage accordions playing Purcell. Japanese dancer, Juku Wada, works with a surround-soundscape ambushing us from hidden speakers.

Shattered language echoes the disconnected images we witness. The demented fringe-dwellers in La Tristeza, yell at us. The epic, River Ota, alternately gushes with language or subsides into silence. One scene, called "Words", is a barrage of multi-lingual translation that demonstrates the torrent of language to which we are subjected daily. Snakesong's dialogue is simultaneously translated to and from Italian and English.

Combine the visually rich and layered words of TS Eliot's Wasteland with the fragile and magnetic presence and resonant voice of Fiona Shaw, and the deceptively simple direction of wizard Debra Warner, and you have a riveting and swift (37 minute) piece of passionate verse theatre.

We are witness to devastation and tragedy. In River Ota grips the heart with its lyrical study of victims of Hiroshima, Nazism and AIDS, drawing together damaged lives on several continents. In Architect's Walk we see the Nazis bearing their post-war punishment, while in Natural Life white men abuse women and Aboriginals. Masterkey watches the decline if six women into despair and the violations in Snakesong are distressing.

Almost all maintain a sense of humour in the face of such despair. We need hope and laughter and the flip side of tragedy is humour. La Tristeza is hilarious, Snakesong weirdly funny and Ota has scenes of witty naturalism and even a Feydeau farce on stage..

The Asian influence is enormous in many works. Masterkey incorporates Japanese actors and performance styles while Ota is set partly in Japan and Uttapriyadarshi is by a North Indian company performing a Buddhist myth.

The festival theme, "the sacred and the profane", permeates the entire program and the audience is transformed and transported by most. This is why we go to theatre.


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