Finely executed songs: Adelaide Festival jailbirds

Live review: Instructions for an Imaginary Man

Various People Inc
Adelaide Gaol
March 10

This brooding, semi-staged song cycle is more art installation than theatre piece, relying on the reaction of the audience reaction to the performance space for its impact. The Adelaide-based collective Various People, who present multi-disciplinary works in unusual formats, has chosen the uneasy intimacy of a dank room in the Old Adelaide Gaol as the evocative setting of Richard Chew’s music to poetry by the unjustly incarcerated and prisoners of conscience.

I walked past the A-Wing, where seven executed men were buried between 1920 and 1946, and through a small Amnesty International exhibition about asylum seekers, before being invited to get cosy on the concrete floor with only a square of hessian as padding. The discomfort of the seating arrangements – threadbare rugs and sagging mattresses – is intended as a visceral part of the overall experience: all the austere furnishings were made and used by the prisoners. And the slight sensation of pins and needles in my toes didn’t seem like much to complain about by the end of this thought-provoking show.

Designer Bec Francis’s ghostly layers of gauze allow viewers to observe the goings-on inside a cramped cell, in which an unnamed man – held captive in total isolation for an unknown period of time – has little to do apart from the occasional set of push-ups, pacing the length of his enclosure and contemplating his fate. Members of the audience become voyeurs peering at a human being at the precipice of broken-spirited despair, sensitively portrayed by actor Graeme Rose in what is likely to be the sparsest non-speaking role he’ll ever play. Projected onto the scrim is simple yet effective footage interacting with our prisoner: still more views of the condemned man from shadowy corners (subtle lighting design by Nic Mollison) and vivid images of the longed-for outside world.

In these chilling, desolate confines, Chew’s songs act as a soothing balm rather than an expression of horror or outrage. Given the instrumentation of string quartet, piano and clarinet, I was expecting something along the lines of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time (written when he was interned at a concentration camp in 1941) or Górecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs (a setting of a young girl’s prayer scrawled on the wall of a Gestapo prison). Instead we hear beautifully crafted miniatures with only hints of darkness and dissonance. Gentle cascading piano (played by the composer) and delicate counterpoint between viola and clarinet (Teagan Short and Alexander Ioakim) suit some of the selected poems, most poignantly Leland Bardwell’s sensuous description of a hostage savouring the textures, colours and scents of an orange proffered by his guards.

Moments of Impressionist calm resonate with the opening poem Prison by French Symbolist Paul Verlaine, who was jailed for the attempted shooting of his lover Rimbaud. Musically, a greater range of emotions and dramatic impetus would have better served the wide view of humanity expressed in the trajectory of the poems, particularly for powerful lines like “First firing squads – then worms” (Nikola Vaptsarov’s Last Words Found in his Pockets, a letter to the poet’s wife written before he was executed for his part in the anti-Nazi resistance).

Though the ensemble achieves the ideal balance between tension, melancholy and cantabile, the six players are almost entirely obscured behind the screens, disconnecting them from the audience. Nigel Cliffe’s robust, burnished baritone is impressive; mezzo-soprano Cheryl Pickering’s vibrato can be grating at times, but she demonstrates great pathos and understanding of the text. Both singers, bathed in light behind the prisoner, appear almost as guardian angels imparting compassion, shared experience and hope.

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Finely executed songs: Adelaide Festival jailbirds
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