Melbourne Festival: After Life ~ theatre notes

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Melbourne Festival: After Life

Melbourne Festival Diary #3

It may have only opened on Thursday, but the Melbourne Festival is now well into its stride. Aside from the Forsythe Dance Company, my highlight so far has been Orlando, a hallucinatory theatrical riff on Virginia Woolf's novel from independent Melbourne company The Rabble, which is at the Malthouse as part of its Helium season. Beautiful, obscene, wickedly funny, wilfully theatrical, this is The Rabble's best work yet. When I work out what happened I'll write about it further, but it occurs to me that this might be what contemporary feminist theatre looks like.

Frustratingly, I've missed what were reportedly the two ovational events of the opening week: Nilaja Sun’s No Child..., a one-woman show at Theatre Works about the failures of the US education system, and Antony and the Johnsons' Swanlights at Hamer Hall. No Child..., oddly, wasn't on the invitation list that was sent out to media, which might explain my first oversight; although picking from a festival program often feels like playing Tetris with your diary, and inevitably you miss something important. There is talk of a return season, so keep your eyes peeled.

After Life, Michel Van der Aa

I simply wasn't issued tickets for Antony, which suggests that TN might have slipped onto some pr Z-list*: an impression strengthened, it must be said, by the seats I had for the opening event of the festival, Dutch composer/director Michel Van der Aa's After Life. Up in the gods at the Regent Theatre minus binoculars was not the way to see this opera. This isn't simply privileged whinging (although, to be honest, it partly is). Critics tend to be fussy about seats: if you're writing about a show, and especially if you didn't enjoy it, you feel that, in fairness to the artist, you ought to have experienced it at its best. On the other hand, anyone who pays for a show ought to have a good experience, even if they are at the back of the theatre. That many didn't was evidenced by the dress circle walkouts during the final hour of the show: I stopped counting at about thirty.

The fact is that the Regent Theatre was entirely the wrong venue to do this work justice: its over-the-top Renaissance kitsch might be a brilliant frame for musical spectacle, such as the upcoming King Kong, but it dwarfed the austere set of Van der Aa's opera and completely flattened the possibility of emotional response. This is a major problem: as Van der Aa says in the program: "For me, opera only makes sense if we find subjects and librettos that connect to an audience here and now." This opera, which is based on a 2001 film by Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-Eda, depends on emotional connection; without it, the result is a kind of epic bathos.

The conceit of After Life is that we are in a metaphysical limbo, in which the souls of the recently dead are met by purgatorial bureaucrats who must determine with them the defining memory of their lives. The lower stage is cluttered with piles of domestic objects, a kind of mnemonic warehouse through which the various characters rummage until they find the memory they will take with them to eternity. The characters - three live on stage, three on film - have a week to decide on this defining moment. The drama of the libretto itself turns on the relationship between the bureaucrat Aidan (Roderick Williams) and his client, Mr Walter (Richard Suart), who turn out to have history in common.

Van der Aa complicates the original scenario with documentary footage of several people asked about their most significant memory. These interviews, projected on the large screen back stage, have the complex feeling that the libretto signally lacks: when Flint, a little boy of surpassing sweetness, talks about his favourite dog, or Bert remembers working with his eccentric grandfather in a basement making a perpetual motion machine, it heightens the lack of affect in the opera proper. And this in turn begs the question: can there be such a thing as an opera which depends on naturalistic identification? Despite the tricky interactions of video and stage presences, these elements neither integrate nor fruitfully contrast: the overwhelming feeling is of watching two different kinds of work, a documentary film and an opera, jammed together on a single stage.

This isn't helped by the staging: as a director, Van der Aa strikes me as a very good composer. It's overwhelmingly static, even conservative. As soon as I realised, early into the show, that the opera was going to finish when the stage was emptied of objects, I couldn't help noting their departure as one by one piles of clutter - lounge suites and bicycles, park benches and standard lamps - were wheeled off stage. This feeling of marking duration was heightened by an increasing indignation at the banality of the libretto and, in particular, a growing feeling of disbelief at its simplistic treatment of something as complex and evanescent as human memory. Given (say) Proust, how is it seriously possible to reduce the sensual interiority of lived memory to a kind of MTV video? Perhaps this conceit might have worked in the original film, which I haven't seen: for me, the effect was a baffling sentimentality.

Once the various characters decide on their defining memory, the moment with which they will live for eternity, the operatic bureaucrats set about re-enacting and filming it. Here, I supposed, we were witnessing the artifice of memory, how it reconstructs the past into a present fiction; instead, it seemed to me that we were being shown a kind of poverty, the leaching of the multiple richness of memory by visual mediation. The emotional pay-off of the opera is the projection of these recaptured memories as films at the end, when they are given a sense of reality by the illusions of artfulness; by then I couldn't but feel that being condemned to watch a single piece of footage for ever and ever would, indeed, be a kind of purgatory. But I don't believe that irony was intentional.

Like his mentor, Louis Andriessen, Van der Aa's music mixes contemporary electronica influences and jazz with more traditional classical instruments: notably in this case, woodwind and harpsichord. The score reminds me of a kinder, less discordant Andriessen, with clear lyrical lines and a focus on melody: there is little drama in the music, which relies on subtler musical interactions that again were largely lost in the space of the Regent. I had no complaints with any of the performances, from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra nor from the singers. I suspect in a more sympathetic theatre, such as the Playhouse, After Life might have been a different experience: for me, the Regent exposed its weaknesses and cruelly dissipated its potential strengths.

* I should add a postscript: I have been hastily assured by the Melbourne Festival that this is not the case. And also, despite my caviling here, I can't help wondering sometimes whether it's a good idea for critics not to be privileged...

After Life, after Hirokazu Kore-eda, composition, stage and video direction and text by Michel Van der Aa. De Nederlandse Opera, Melbourne Festival, at the Regent Theatre. Until October 27.


Anonymous said...

The extent to which I agree with your critique Alison is complete. That space is absolutely the wrong room for this work. The failure of this reminds me of a few years back of the sculptural installation by Callum Morton plonked down in the arts centre forecourt - which may have meant the entire world got to see how our money is being spent (I think actually a very good idea in and of itself), but the very publicly accessed nature of experiencing it meant that the work lost any sense of miracle or magic. Which it would have had it been somewhere more 'sacred'.

Jana P said...

Thank you for explaining the Twitter flurry (reports of so many walkouts), Alison.

Just a note: when you have time, I warmly encourage you to see Kore-eda's original film, After Life (Wonderful Life in the original title). It is an exceptionally beautiful film about memory and the meaning of life, and one of my all-time favourites. Its effect is emphasised by the way in which Kore-eda uses a large number of non-actors in the film: a large chunk of it is actually documentary footage. You are never aware of it when you watch it, you just wonder why it all feels so authentic despite being set in the afterlife. I suspect Van der Aa was going for the same effect, but it doesn't sound like he has succeeded.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks Anon and Jana. I'll definitely track down the film: several people have told me it is very good. I suspect the problem might be that the kinds of delicacies capturable on film simply can't transfer to the theatre in the same way, without becoming overblown and crude. I suspect that those kinds of effects might have been translated into the music, but where I was, that simply didn't transfer. The fact is that I simply can't tell from what I experienced!

Jana P said...

More specifically, I think the kinds of delicacies captured on a Kore-eda film (specifically, his documentation of reality), simply can't transfer to OPERA.