★★★★½ A rich and riotous exploration of time, fusing dance, music, video and theatre.

Perth Concert Hall
February 12, 2016

“Artist” feels too small a word to describe William Kentridge. “King collaborator”, or perhaps “theatrical savant” is closer to the mark. The South African mastermind behind Refuse the Hour, a multi-disciplinary “chamber opera” (although this is also a woefully inadequate description) is a rare combination: fearlessly ambitious, ferociously intelligent and just the right amount of reckless. In the pursuit of his creative vision, Kentridge has cherry picked an impressively large ensemble of composers, musicians, dancers, designers and dramaturges – co-conspirators who share a similarly fantastical vision of the world. Together they have assembled an anarchic yet carefully considered production that resists fitting into any single pigeonhole.

While there is no conventional narrative as such, Refuse the Hour explores various concepts of time. This premise might sound simple enough, but Kentridge’s musings sprawl across cosmic distances and ancient cultures, posing questions that try to reconcile the academic sterility of scientific fact with the ineffable expanses of the human imagination. A nostalgic anecdote about hearing the ancient Greek myth of Perseus as a child trickles into a lecture about the time-travelling quality of the speed of light. A description of entropy and the universe’s predilection for chaos winds its way into a study of how a creative idea forms in the subconscious from various disparate epiphanies. A potted history of how a consensus on international time zones was reached provokes a protest song, railing against colonialism. It is both rich and riotous; a post-modern Brechtian cabaret, tackling big ideas with a sharp wit and a whimsical charm.

Kentridge sits at the centre of this bizarre and beautiful world; an intellectual provocateur whose surprisingly stoic delivery adds a sobering note of calm to the otherwise tumultuous atmosphere. However, it’s the artists that surround him who provide the creative finesse that galvanises this multi-layered piece into a cohesive whole.

Dancer-choreographer Dada Masilo’s explosively high-octane physicality is an irresistible dynamo. The moto perpetuo of her sharply traced, spooling lines and nimbly stuttering footwork is exhilarating to watch and yet she is also capable of breath-taking restraint. Placed on a revolving pedestal with huge megaphones obscuring her arms and legs, she gently moves through a series of elegant poses. It’s a simple yet beautiful tableau.

Classical singer Ann Masina makes the most explicit reference to opera. She appears, singing Berlioz’s Spectre de la Rose, from the first circle of the auditorium, her mellifluous soprano providing a fascinating aesthetic foil for the exotic array of sonorities provided by vocalist Joanna Dudley. At points Masina’s elegant phrases are seemingly captured by Dudley, sung in reverse as if sucked in by some sonic black hole, absorbing each inverted pitch, vowel and consonant.

South African composer Philip Miller, arguably the most significant contributor, is a master of sonority and drama, employing an elaborate range of unusual orchestrations, extended techniques and junkyard instruments, including an extraordinary drum kit robot, which hangs overhead from the ceiling. His music is experimental, but not inaccessibly so, pairing a complex harmonic language with a more familiar vocabulary of traditional musical styles and up-beat rhythms.

Creating a vibrant, dynamic patina across the stage, Catherine Meyburgh and William Kentridge’s video projections help to both articulate and elaborate on the meandering narrative. As with every component of this production, the calibre and execution are of an extremely high standard, but at times, there is a daunting amount of information for the audience to assimilate. There is also an intellectual elitism at the core of this show that makes pretty sizeable demands of the audience. This isn’t a criticism as such, in fact, I applaud this show for being unapologetically cerebral, but certainly this is not a production that will appeal to everyone.

The level of intricacy and invention on display in Refuse the Hour is unquestionably impressive, but perhaps the most astonishing thing about this show is how effortlessly simpatico the vast number of collaborators have been in their efforts to realise Kentridge’s concept with such flair and artistry. Creative exchange is an essential part of any theatre, but the opportunity to see such an uninhibited flow of ideas between so many artists is far rarer. 

Perth International Arts Festival presents Refuse the Hour, until February 14.

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