Murder, Cantina, Sydney Festival

Murder

Erth

Seymour Centre, January 8

Graeme Rhodes in Murder. Erth, Sydney Festival

Graeme Rhodes in Murder. Erth, Sydney Festival

IT sounds such a strong idea for a physical theatre piece: the special fascination society has with murder; the music of Nick Cave; puppets and animation from a company with a strong track record in this kind of work: Raimondo Cortese as writer; Kate Champion as choreographer. That’s a lot of talent in the room, and the early development work must have been persuasive. The Australia Council’s Major Festivals program came on board and after the Sydney Festival Murder will be seen at Tasmania’s Ten Days on the Island and the Adelaide Festival. Given that the Melbourne Festival is also listed in the acknowledgements it will presumably be staged there too. That’s extensive, high-profile exposure for a muddled and simplistic work. It’s good-looking, no doubt about that, but Murder has a particularly soft underbelly.

Apparently some people like to kill. Who knew?

An early, rather leaden speech sets out to find an unbroken chain of bloodlust through history. The Greeks and Romans were entertained by seeing people put to death gruesomely, public executions have a long history, if you can’t go to a public execution then grand guignol theatre might provide you with your thing, or these days it’s more likely to be online games. Okay. I might not be entirely convinced that these things constitute a continuum, but if so, Murder is setting out to be a piece about our innermost dark impulses and desires – yes, yours and mine, whether acted upon or lived vicariously.

This turns out not to be the case at all. The narrator, played gallantly by Graeme Rhodes, plunges into a nightmare explicitly sparked by blows of a most individual kind. What is real and what imagined in his life is left open to conjecture, but none of it is pretty. And, unfortunately, not all that interesting or revelatory. The piece turns inward, although not before the narrative of Cave’s Stagger Lee is played out by puppets in detailed fashion. It’s a good old-fashioned Wild West story that has nothing to do with the rest of Murder’s narrative, but provides the show with a continuing visual motif in the form of Stag’s vulpine grin.

Cave’s music is used less than one might have anticipated. The execution song The Mercy Seat tops and tails the show, Cannibal’s Hymn accompanies exactly what you think it would and Red Right Hand forms a backdrop to video-game splatters:

He’s a ghost, he’s a god, he’s a man, he’s a guru

You’re one microscopic cog in his catastrophic plan

Designed and directed by his red right hand

Cave sure can write, which is another problem for Murder. Nothing else comes near Cave’s poetic, insightful gift.

A song conspicuously missing from the score is Where the Wild Roses Grow, Cave’s duet with Kylie Minogue. Murder’s director Scott Wright, who devised its concept, told The Australian on January 7 that the song was considered “too loaded” for the show. Where the While Roses Grow is about the murder of a woman by a man who she thinks loves her, and its exclusion exposes Murder’s timidness. It is not quite clear why the song was considered “too loaded” for a show eager to put many perversions on stage, but one possibility is that Murder is very concerned to engage the audience’s sympathy for the central character. He tells of nearly committing a murder as a young man, and we find out it’s someone all of us would probably be thrilled was dead. That would have been a win. And towards the end, a gruesome end pretty much befits a gruesome character.

The puppet work is very beautiful and not at all confronting – another problem for a piece that surely wants to unsettle its audience. There are, however, moments that give a flash of Murder’s potential. I was very much taken by the way in which the prostitute Nellie Brown grieves over her killed lover (and pimp) in Stagger Lee. It felt true and pertinent. Another moment was inadvertent but striking. Puppeteers were manipulating a life-size female figure who was wearing a slinky red frock. As she floated through the air her dress was caught up, exposing brief black knickers. Now remember – this is a show in which all sorts of violence and sex is depicted, so fair enough. Except that a puppeteer gently pulled down the dress so the figure was less exposed. I felt most connected to and interested in the show then than at any other moment. That’s what I thought. What the creators of Murder wanted me to think I really can’t say.

Seymour Centre, Sydney, until January 19.

Cantina

The Famous Spiegeltent,, January 8

FORGET the blurb that describes Cantina as a show that “blurs fantasy and reality, the past, present and future to explore the rapture and torment of desire …” (I quote from the Sydney Festival program). No, despite its claims of deeper meaning and its nods to steamy, aggressive, rough-edged cabaret, Cantina is in fact one of the sweetest and most charming shows of its kind. You just want to hug its multi-talented performers, all of whom seem just that bit more approachable than the ultra slick lot – used to be La Clique, now La Soiree, go figure – also appearing in Sydney as we speak. Contortionist Henna Kailula has a smile so radiant it could power the Spielgeltent’s generator all by itself and her warmth is a crucial part of the evening’s success.

Cantina has the episodic, one-act-after-another form of most similar shows but works with a smaller group of performers. This means they keep returning in various guises, giving Cantina a pleasingly tight structure and the chance to marvel at the array of skills set out for our delectation. Apart from music director Nara Demasson, who apparently is only mono-talented, the other five performers sing, dance and play a variety of instruments on top of their circus specialties, which are also multifarious.

Marvel at the tightrope walk in stilettos, the blurringly fast rope twirl, the rag-doll contortion, the daring acrobatics in a very confined space and so on. And fans of Ursula Martinez from La Clique – she of the world-famous Hanky Panky act – may recognise an homage to this in a delightful magic act involving a newspaper and a penis.

The dance background of co-director and performer Chelsea McGuffin adds an individual touch to Cantina. It was fun to spot in a couple of strenuous acrobatic acts moves more that could have come straight from the ballet.

An extremely cheerful night.

Until January 27.

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