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Is there ever a justification for suffering? Could it ever be reasonable to harm a child? Could our society ever be quietly complicit with an act of violence or torture? These are the confronting questions churning at the core of composer David Chisholm’s ambitious and highly esoteric production The Experiment. Described as a musical monodrama, this concert-cum-play attempts to draw on the 18th century theatrical tradition combining spoken word and music. However a battle of competing influences and some critical weaknesses in certain elements of this aptly titled experimental work of music theatre results in an impenetrable and sometimes cacophonous experience.
Infamous British playwright Mark Ravenhill’s gritty monologue of the same title forms the backbone of this production. It is a darkly ingenious essay on the ambiguity of memory, expressed through a story of Mengele-esque experiments on children. As a stand-alone piece of theatre it's an extremely divisive work that uses a constantly shifting perspective to blur our understanding of the horrors of the central protagonist’s stream-of-consciousness confession.
Chilean contemporary guitar specialist Maurico Carrasco is the show’s sole performer, delivering Ravenhill’s text as well as occasionally playing. It’s a hugely demanding responsibility for a solitary performer to support an entire production on their own, and while Carrasco’s guitar skills are more than adequate to tackle the technical demands of the avant-garde score, his softly spoken, monotonal delivery of the text is woefully inadequate to express the nuance, aggression, confusion and black humour that is Ravenhill’s stock-in-trade. This monologue would be an Apollonian challenge for even an experienced actor, but for a musician with limited acting skills delivering a very colloquial text in their second language, the task is sadly insurmountable.
The accompanying score is an assemblage of multiple elements both acoustic and electronic. An array of speakers above the audience cleverly pans various sounds around the room providing an ingenious perception of depth, although Chisholm’s collage of digitally manipulated samples and synthetically generated sounds quickly becomes quite repetitive, with a lack of subtlety or contrast. Nonetheless there were moments of brilliance that peeked above the underlying din: an antiphonal duet for classical guitar and electronics vibrantly juxtaposed the crisp, unsullied tone of the acoustic elements against a smeary, digital counterpoint, and a hypnotic interlude for a self-playing, mutant Franken-guitar, part-robot part-instrument, was a surprising collision of mechanical invention and musical experimentation.
Indeed Chisholm has collaborated with a fleet of other artists from a variety of different disciplines to create a rich backdrop of video projections, sculptural set pieces and bizarre props. The number of different artistic contributors is impressive, but makes for a performance environment which is relentlessly dense. Again, there are inspired moments that stand out, particularly with the highly resourceful use of video, but en masse it becomes a barrage of competing ideas that further obscure the subtleties of the text.
This appraisal may read as rather negative, but I offer this caveat: The Experiment may be very challenging, it may be doggedly bleak but it is also pioneering in a way I personally applaud. We live in a world of constant stimulation. Our hyperlinked culture craves a dizzying bombardment of the senses, so it’s no wonder that the traditional concert paradigm is one that is losing its appeal for composers hoping to tap into society’s hunger for increasingly immersive experiences. This is however uncharted territory, and as new innovations in performance environments evolve, inevitably some will be less successful than others.
Just as Darwin observed in the animal kingdom, it’s a case of survival of the fittest, and as this process of trial and error progresses, the fruits of those successes and failures will be reaped by future generations of creators. The Experiment is a milestone on this journey into the unknown, and it is with pioneering productions such as this, that dare not to merely entertain us, but to challenge and confront us, that the forward momentum of contemporary creation will continue to flow.
The Experiment is at Carriageworks, part of the Sydney Festival unti 17 January.