REVIEW: Aurelian

Words: Tahnee Robinson

The stage at Metro Arts feels like a house in storage: draped with muslin and shadows, the shapes suggest but don’t confirm. It’s a fitting scene for what is to come — Aurelian explores the nature of memory and grief, and the way we construct our lives around loss.

Aurelian is the work of Genevieve Trace and a small creative team. Trace describes herself as a multidisciplinary performer, and Aurelian certainly samples from a variety of creative forms. The performance uses film, audio samples, physical theatre, live recording and a collection of narratives to form a pastiche of recollection and identity. Opening with a monologue that verges on prose-poetry, we are awakened to the anxiety of grief; performer Erica Fields repeats, with increasing desperation, a mantra of sorts: “But I have to work these things in order.” This is the panic of the bereaved, sorting through memories distorted with obsessive recollection.

The performance takes us through a series of stories, interview-style. Fields, shadowed by co-performer Trace, nods and smiles and pauses, responding to a series of prompts and questions that are unspoken. She has captured the glossy, overwrought joy of the bereaved perfectly. We are sometimes not sure who she is — widow, grandchild, neighbour — but all of these characters speak with the earnest ardor of people trying to do their lost loved ones justice in the retelling. And these stories are real, sourced from people in Trace’s hometown of Ayr in northern Queensland. Amongst them seems to be Trace herself, or her character, trying to understand her own grief.

Aurelian

Around the halfway mark, the narratives speed up and begin to fragment. Mike Willmett’s sound design follows the theme: the soundscape squeaks and glitches with the failing of the characters’ recollections. The climax, an attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable, is a wall of noise and flashing lights. Whitney Eglington’s lighting design makes clever use of the abstract set. Images are projected onto unlikely surfaces and lights appear behind screens to cast unexpected shadows and figures. The set is mostly made up of a series of trapezoidal constructions in various sizes. These function as seats, benches, projector screens and, at one point, a washing basket. They’re unobtrusive, and Trace and Field can move them about the stage with minimal interference.

All of this combined is Aurelian’s weak point. In evoking the overwhelming incomprehensibility of grief the show has overreached a little. There’s just too much here, for 60 minutes worth of performance. I can help but wonder if the whole thing would have felt more effective if a couple of the elements had been removed. The concept of the supernatural, hinted at during the opening, is explored more directly here. This is perhaps a natural inclusion in a discussion of death and loss, but it feels out of place amongst so much musing on identity and memory. The concept, executed with lights and a semi-transparent backdrop, and clever use of the two performers, is visually effective. But feels like a bridge too far — one thing too many to think about in a performance that is already quite intense.

Aurelian doesn’t really conclude — there isn’t even a curtain call. And that’s thematically consistent. There’s no answer to grief, no cure or method for dealing with it and no way to manage the wrinkling and slippage of our memories.

AURELIAN played at Metro Arts from 7 to 15 September as part of Brisbane Festival.

TAHNEE ROBINSON is a Brisbane-based writer. She was OffStreet Press’s visual arts, film and fashion editor.

REVIEW: The Nightingale and the Rose (Anywhere Fest)

Directorial team Jennifer Bismire (live production, puppetry and design), Belinda McCulloch (film) and Richard Grantham (music) transform Oscar Wilde’s tale of “love perfected through death” into a multimedia performance piece. Published in 1888, Wilde’s short story tells of nightingale’s sacrifice for a young student in need of a red rose to give his beloved. The parable unfolds through puppetry, text, film and music across seven screens in the Powerhouse Labyrinth and Ruins.

Let’s get any biases out of the way: I know key members of the team, and very much respect their work. (After a while, it’s hard not to know at least someone in any given Brisbane show.) Still, I trust them to trust me to review honestly.

There’s something mystical about shadow puppets. These articulated silhouettes are deftly handled by a large cast of puppeteers (Caitlin Marie Adie, Emily Bruce, Perie Essex, Eloise Maree, Lauren Neilson, Helen Stephens and Sami Van Barneveld).

The garden, across three screens, takes centre stage. At the far left, subtitles tell the Nightingale’s tragic story. On the other side, a live-action film plays out philosophical conversations between the Student and his professors. It’s a very different way to view a show; The Nightingale and the Rose is part-theatre, part-cinema and part-art installation, with the mood of a silent film. You don’t want to miss a thing — but there’s a lot to follow, and missing some (at least from the front row) is inevitable.

The Nightingale and the Rose

The filmed portion introduces new characters to Wilde’s story: two professors who consider the Nightingale’s plight as a thought experiment and guide their lovelorn Student. Wilde’s narration is split between these three figures. With regard to adapting a seven-page story for an hour-long show, it’s a clever idea; however, John Grey, Michael Croome and Tim Gollan’s performances feel unprepared and their dialogue lacks the conviction to transcend its role as a collection of leftover witticisms.

For the show, Grantham has arranged compositions based on works by Lili Boulanger and Olivier Messianen. His evocative performance transfixes, transporting us from the Powerhouse Ruins into the Nightingale’s garden. Still, the presence of the outside world is part of what makes Anywhere Festival different — you can’t stop passers-by chattering, nearby meditators chanting or car headlights flashing, so you may as well embrace the ambient soundtrack. I admired the cast, in particular, as they pressed on during an outburst from a gentleman who verbally abused an usher. (Yes, it’s a ticketed event in a public space — deal with it.)

It’s brave to stage this quiet, thoughtful piece outside of a traditional theatre space. Interestingly, some audience members behave more like cinemagoers: some chat while others even come and go. In last week’s interview, Bismire raised a pertinent question: “How many forms do we have to saturate a contemporary audience with to get across the same story?” Bismire, McCulloch and Grantham’s production is beautiful, but in the attempt to appeal to all types of viewers the story’s simplicity is sacrificed — along with the Nightingale.

The Nightingale and the Rose runs in the Powerhouse Labyrinth and Ruins from 9 to 18 May, 2013. Anywhere Fest.

Can’t Be Artsed #3: Mini-Reviews and Some Mini-Films

It’s summer in Brisbane, and I’m going on a lot of movie dates just to escape the heat. Here are a few mini-reviews of recent offerings: film Chronicle and film festival FLiCKERFEST.

Film: Chronicle

This sci-fi thriller, in which three ordinary teens score alien superpowers, is the directorial debut of Josh Trank. Chronicle is a fairly short film, at 83 minutes, but it takes a while to get going — so long we wondered if we were in the wrong theatre. The protagonist, Andrew (Dane DeHaan), holds the handy-cam for most of this found-footage-esque flick, and for the first quarter it’s a gritty urban drama. Continue reading