Tuesday, 19 December 2006

Requiem for the 20th Century–Volume One, Nov 20 2006

Requiem for the 20th Century – Volume One 
By Tee O’Neill & Theatre@Risk 
New Ballroom, Trades Hall, Carlton, Nov 20 until Dec 3, 2006
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Requiem for the 20th Century is an ambitious project by Theatre@Risk and Tee O’Neill and it succeeds in part. However, one cannot help thinking that it bit off more than it could chew.

The project proposes “to capture the spirit of the 20th century” in two parts. Volume 1 spans the first 45 years and runs for three hours. It sets the story of star-crossed lovers, Red (Angus Grant) and Cassandra (Isabella Dunwill) against the background of the struggles and achievements of 1900 to 1945.

Red grows up in Melbourne then, with his brother, Gerry, (Andre Jewson) enlists in 1914. Meanwhile Cassandra, child of an English diplomat (Alex Pinder) and a Russian aristocrat (Odette Joannidis), arrives in Cairo where she falls in love with Red.

Despite Cassandra’s father’s aim to keep Red safely ensconced in a desk job, Red goes to Gallipoli where he witnesses horrors. Cassandra and Red are parted indefinitely when he returns to Melbourne too late to nurse his mother or shell-shocked brother. Being of noble heart, Red marries his dead brother’s pregnant fiancée, Alice (Jude Beaumont), and he and Cassandra embark on separate, loveless lives on opposite sides of the globe.

The performances are strong. Durwill is feisty and sympathetic as Cassie and Grant balances Red’s early boyishness with his more mature dignity and bookishness. The supporting cast play multiple roles with alacrity and their chorus work is engaging.

Director, Chris Bendall, keeps the pace swift, wasting no time between the perhaps too numerous scenes.
He composes attractive stage pictures and imbues each scene with energy.

The play begins well but it is simply too long and has too many ideas. O’Neill aims to write an epic play but, although individual scenes are entertaining, the structure is rambling and the script lacks a clear theme or through line. Some dialogue becomes expository with too much historical information.

At times it feels like a lesson in 20th century theatre styles as we visit the Weimar Republic cabaret in Berlin, Meyerhold’s theatre in Moscow and Fernando Arrabal’s play, Guernica, during the Spanish Civil War.

Cassandra spends her time with Picasso, Dali, Marlene Dietrich, Lorca, Meyerhold and Brecht. We witness real and fictional scenes about Chaplin, Einstein, Chamberlain and Hitler. We travel to Cairo, Gallipoli, London, Moscow, Spain, Berlin and more.

Despite such weighty material we are left unmoved by any one character or story line. Writing and staging an epic is no picnic and Requiem, although it definitely has merit, needs some retouching – and editing.

By Kate Herbert

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