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Meat Market, Melbourne
February 19, 2016
There is an inherent conflict in art responding to art; it begs the question, how does the homage react to its source material in a way that is both respectful and yet communicative of a distinct creative voice? Where is the personal authenticity of the artist if they are reimagining someone else’s vision? Devising something that can exist in isolation and yet also contributes to the legend of its inspiration is a complex equation to solve, and while Chamber Made Opera’s Another Other makes a valiant attempt at decoding Ingmar Bergman’s densely layered 1966 masterpiece, Persona, the result is ultimately impenetrable.
Flanking a central hub of mixing desks and laptops, two banks of seats, set opposite each other, are separated by a series of sheer fabric panels. With the four instigators of the piece - Natasha Anderson, Sabina Maselli, Anthony Pateras and Erkki Veltheim - sat between the two hemispheres of this performance space, we are offered a complex geometry of spatially controlled soundscapes and projected images. There are two digital clocks either side of the performers, one counting down, the other marking the passing of time, and on the outer edges of the room, a series of spotlights occasionally dazzle the audience with bursts of blinding light. It’s a dizzyingly complex arrangement, easily capable of sensory overload, and largely, that’s exactly what it delivers.
Distilled to its most experiential components, everything but the vaguest semblance of Bergman’s narrative is discarded. In its place, we are offered a more disjointed pallet of inscrutable references that combine to create a series of episodes mixing film, real-time manipulation of live performance and electronic soundscapes. There is a faint, skeletal presence of Persona’s structure, but only as a subliminal afterthought.
Gesturally, there are clearly discernible artefacts from Bergman’s tense modernist drama. The lack of spoken dialogue mirrors Bergman’s mute protagonist, Elisabet. Then there’s the use of found sounds like the whirring clatter of a film projector or the pointillism of dripping water, the use of provocative iconographies, such as Malcolm Browne’s famous image of a self-immolating Tibetan monk, and the pointed exposure of the mechanics of the production akin to Bergman’s jarring film reel. At one point, a short excerpt of the Chaconne from Bach’s Partita No 2 makes an explicit nod to the use of Bach’s E Major Violin Concerto in Persona. It's a rich array of ingredients, but somehow they fail to form a cohesive whole.
What Another Other achieves from a technical perspective is incredibly impressive. All of its constituent components are coordinated seamlessly, and there is a level of sophistication at work in the realisation of the projections and sound design which is particularly virtuosic. With so much in its arsenal, there could have been a little more restraint in the execution. Almost every part of the elaborate production design is revealed in the first 15 minutes of the show, leaving very little room to increase the intensity or surprise later in the piece.
There is a creative élan at play that speaks to the obviously rewarding collaboration between the four artists who have created this show, as well as the palpable reverence they share for Bergman’s film. However, what this production mistranslates is the finesse and narrative subtlety of Persona. Many of the statements this show makes are gratuitously confronting without having any perceptible logic or dramatic momentum to support it, and there is a noticeable dearth of more nuanced moments to offer some counterpoint.
There is also an intellectual elitism present that is perhaps too exclusive. In its attempts to out-compete the cerebral intensity of Persona, Another Other muscles out any of the theatrical potential that would have allowed a more rewarding connection for the audience. I’m not suggesting that eschewing a figurative, traditionally crafted narrative arc is a critical issue, but there is an unignorable implication that a thorough and academic appreciation of the subtexts in Bergman’s film is needed to understand what this production is trying to say. I applaud how creatively boisterous this ambitious show is, but in its myopic excitement, Another Other has closed its borders to all but the most informed audience.
Chamber Made Opera present Another Other at the Meat Market, North Melbourne, until February 21.