Adelaide Festival: Split and Memorial

Split, Lucy Guerin Inc. AC Main Arts Theatre, Adelaide. March 3.

Memorial, Brink Productions, Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide, March 3.

The opening weekend of this year’s Adelaide Festival, the second under the co-artistic directorship of Neil Armfield and Rachel Healy, had brilliance and breadth in equal measure.

The marquee work was Australian composer Brett Dean’s opera Hamlet, which premiered at Glyndebourne last year to much acclaim. It wasn’t exactly a surprise when Hamlet was announced for Adelaide given that Armfield is its director, but wonderful to see it on home soil and with many roles taken by Australian singers. Cheryl Barker scored a considerable success as Gertrude and Lorina Gore was a tremendously affecting Ophelia alongside the original, extraordinary Hamlet of British tenor Allan Clayton.

Hamlet cast a long shadow but all hail to the works of smaller scale that followed and made their own mark.

20170316-GL-Split-0724 Gregory Lorenzutti

Lilian Steiner (top) and Melanie Lane in Split. Photo: Gregory Lorenzutti

Lucy Guerin Inc’s Split was a big hit at Melbourne’s Dance Massive festival last year, deservedly so. Its theme is nothing less than the forces of time and space as they impinge on the individual.

Guerin’s work is supremely elegant in construction. In a softly lit square marked out with white tape, two women – Melanie Lane and Lilian Steiner, both breathtaking, danced in unison.

Their movements were dazzlingly intricate as they covered the space, driven by the beats of British composer Scanner’s pulsating electronic score. Big, tough slicing sweeps of the arms contrasted with warm curves for hips, torsos and shoulders. They moved neatly around the square, diagonally and in straight lines, their degree of synchronisation both a technical wonder and a suggestion that the women were two sides of the one coin.

That idea was given extra momentum by the work’s alternating moods and the decision to have one woman (Lane) clothed and the other (Steiner) unclothed. Nakedness on stage almost always brings with it a sense of vulnerability but Steiner’s composure banished any notion of fragility. She was all strength and essence, gleaming in Paul Lim’s beautiful lighting design like a goddess.

Split is divided into eight sections, each lasting half the time of the preceding one and performed in a space half the size. The mesmerising togetherness of the first section and its choreographic material are repeated in the third, fifth and seventh sections. In the other sections, order is disrupted. There is no attempt at unity and antagonism erupts. On one level we might have been watching two different individuals competing for resources – room to move being the obvious but not the only one – but there was also the sense of internal conflicts made visible.

Right at the end there was only space enough for both women to stand, upright and close together, perhaps in harmony, perhaps forced into uneasy proximity. The wealth of ideas in this brief work, lasting only 40 minutes, was immense.

British poet Alice Oswald’s version of The Iliad, Memorial, is subtitled “an excavation”. In Oswald’s telling, the men identified in her text – 215 of them – are not the familiar heroes of Trojan War legend; they are individuals with families and occupations who lived, as we do, with hopes and dreams, and then died violently.


Helen Morse in Memorial. Photo: Shane Reid

Adelaide’s Brink Productions has carved an almost unbearably moving piece of theatre from this threnody, one in which poetry, music and movement seamlessly join hands, as do Australian and British artists in the making of it. British composer Jocelyn Pook wrote the ravishing score, drenched in the vibrant colours of Eastern Europe and the Middle East, and it was played and sung by a lustrous group of musicians led by UK countertenor Jonathan Peter Kenny.

The singers and instrumentalists were arrayed on high at the back of the stage while beneath them a “soldier chorus” of more than 200 people represented Oswald’s 215 named characters. Among them were members of several choirs whose voices, raised en masse at the end, brought Memorial to a conclusion both exalting and emotionally devastating.

At the centre of everything was Helen Morse, who carried the weight of Oswald’s lengthy text on her slight shoulders. Directed by Brink’s Chris Drummond, she was a self-effacing presence as she stood quietly or wended her unassuming way through the army of everyday men, women and children who thronged the stage, sometimes walking in seemingly endless lines, sometimes circling, sometimes standing mute, and at one lovely moment, dancing gently in couples.

As humanity swirled around her, Morse, clad in a red dress of rough cut, told the many stories of lives lost – and the manner in which they were lost – with deep compassion and a voice of infinitely sad beauty.

Drummond’s partner in creating the concept for Memorial, Yaron Lifschitz from famed Brisbane circus company Circa, devised the movement – a monumental task. There were several short sections for three dancers (Tobiah Booth-Remmers, Lina Limosani and Larissa McGowan) but otherwise Lifschitz required nothing remotely virtuosic from the chorus in the way they used their bodies. His direction of the group as a whole, however, was a marvel of complexity as this mass of ordinary folk stood in for those long dead and reminded us of those still to die in countless wars across the globe.

Among Memorial’s co-commissioners is 14-18 NOW, the UK’s arts program for the centenary of World War I, and the piece will be staged at the Barbican in London in September this year.

Verdi to the Divinyls

See, they say ‘Get to your homes ASAP, stay inside, stay protected, don’t drive unless absolutely necessary and stay away from waterways’ and I hear ‘Hop in your Holden and get on down to sing an opera set in the desert on a floating pontoon with no sides or roof, on the biggest body of water in the immediate vicinity in a sleeveless chiffon dress.’ Cos that’s just how I roll, bitches!

– Jacqueline Dark, mezzo-soprano, preparing for a Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour performance of Aida on April 22 (April 21 performance were cancelled due to “unprecedented weather conditions” and the big wet was by no means over).

IF you’re not regularly checking in on Jacqui Dark’s larger-than-life life as chronicled on her Facebook page you are doing yourself a grave disservice. Irreverent, smart, exceptionally funny and greatly gifted, Dark is a cherishable original.

Tonight she gives her final performance as the vengeful Princess Amneris in Aida for HOSH, the last of 13 shows for her cast (it alternated with another). Early afternoon precipitation flagged a potential Singin’ in the Rain show as it was on Tuesday (interval Facebook post: “Our dressing room smells like wet dog …”), although things were looking brighter by mid-afternoon. But rain or no, the performance was expected to go ahead. [NOTE: Aida was indeed performed, although social media photos of Daria Masierio, in the title role, wearing a cape in the second half over her sleeveless gown suggested conditions were chilly.] Opera singers are not quite the precious, cossetted creatures of (lazy) general opinion. In fact, says Dark, difficult conditions can warm create camaraderie between audience and singers. “It’s like we’re all in this together, let’s make this something special. They appreciate us continuing and we appreciate them sitting there.”

Keeping an eye on things ... Jacqueline Dark as Amnesia is Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour's Aida. Photo: Hamilton Lund

Keeping an eye on things … Jacqueline Dark as Amneris in Opera Australia’s Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour’s Aida. Photo: Hamilton Lund

It’s been a testing schedule (Amneris is a big sing to tackle every second night) but there’s no time for rest after tonight. On Wednesday Dark will be onstage at Sydney club The Vanguard in corset and fishnets singing Brecht, Weill, Amanda Palmer, Rickie Lee Jones and some of her own material in Strange Bedfellows: Under the Covers. By her side will be Kanen Breen, fellow opera star, multiple Helpmann Award winner (as is Dark) and gay co-parent although not biological father of her son Alexander, nearly three. It goes without saying he’s an original too (well, I mean Breen, but it sounds as if Alexander is proving to be rather an individual himself).

Not all opera singers can successfully make the transition from Verdi to the Divinyls – also on the Under the Covers songlist – or indeed to other forms of music considered less challenging than opera. It’s trickier than it may seem to conquer an entirely different vocal technique and musical style, as the, ahem, unidiomatic Kiri Te Kanawa-Jose Carreras foray into West Side Story amply demonstrates. But Dark was singing cabaret and musicals right from the start, about 20 years ago, and although Breen came later to the cause, he proved at the first Under the Covers performances late last year he could have been born in a smoky bôite. (Read my review for The Australian of the December show here.)

So yes, Dark and Breen can certainly do it, despite preconceptions some might have about opera singers straying from their usual realm. It’s early days but interest has been keen. Dark and Breen have successfully taken their show to Melbourne’s Butterfly Club and will appear at this year’s Queensland and Adelaide cabaret festivals. There is a DVD in the making, a venture in Melbourne late this year that can’t yet be discussed and some thoughts about perhaps taking Strange Bedfellows offshore next year. The two are also throwing around ideas for a new show to succeed Under the Covers – perhaps something with a dark, Grimm’s fairtytale kind of theme. “We’ve got enough repertoire, even in a narrowed down list, to have enough stuff for three or four shows,” says Dark. “Plus we keep hearing things and say, ‘we have to sing that’.”

Strange Bedfellows Dark and Breen. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Strange Bedfellows Dark and Breen. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

“We have to sing that” is undoubtedly the key to the passion project that is Strange Bedfellows – that and the bond forged between Breen and Dark together 20 years ago when they sang in the chorus of the now-defunct Victoria State Opera’s production of Gilbert & Sullivan’s Ruddigore. It’s safe to say the production was something of a disaster (I saw it) but at least Breen and Dark got their deep connection out of it. A further result: actor, satirist, writer and director Jonathan Biggins was also in the cast and has offered to advise the Strange Bedfellows.

They’d welcome that, because at the moment the two are multi-tasking with a vengeance. For this aspect of their working life they are their own writer, wardrobe designer, manager, agent, entertainment lawyer and public relations specialist. They’ve worked their contacts and social media, had some crucial help from friends and work with Daryl Wallis as music director, but essentially Strange Bedfellows is a two-person outfit. They’ve made the pitches to venues and festivals, they sort out their own contracts, and if something goes wrong with lighting or sound they have to take charge. (Dark says something about learning how to do a lighting rig and I’m not sure she’s joking. She could probably do it – she is quite the brainiac with a degree in physics.)

They even arranged a series of celebrity endorsements that may be seen on YouTube. I heartily recommend that of beloved Australian soprano Emma Matthews; others offering their thoughts are Lou Diamond Phillips, Stuart Skelton, Cheryl Barker and Kate Miller-Heidke. Those contacts are fairly speccy.

It is, however, a far cry from the world of a big company like Opera Australia, where until recently the two were permanent ensemble members with everything on tap. Becoming a freelance artist has brought its uncertainties but also its rewards. Chief among them was the opportunity to bring Strange Bedfellows to life. It’s an idea they’ve been throwing around for about 15 years. They even wrote some material, including a version of Cole Porter’s Let’s Do It that Breen sings for me, with Dark joining in. Let’s just say time hasn’t diluted any of its deliciously subversive taste.

The desire to challenge and provoke remains today, with Exhibit A a pedophile-inspired medley in Under the Covers and Exhibit B a song involving a dog – not a real one, as a complainant seemed to think – and unusual sexual practices. A later show might include something about violence against women. They don’t want to be preachy, they say, but along with being entertaining they do want to make audiences consider some unsettling issues. “If people go away questioning themselves, that’s a start,’’ says Dark.

“I’ve always wanted to do a cabaret show. I absolutely love it, the intimacy of it. Kanen and I had been on salary [with OA] – me for 10 years, Kanen for 15 years. If you’re full-time you have a very heavy workload and we never had time to do it before. It’s incredibly exciting to create your own work – terrifying, but incredibly exciting. And it’s great to push yourself to do, but you feel so vulnerable. Excited and scared, as Sondheim would say.”

While Strange Bedfellows might be fulfilling, the amount of behind-the-scenes organisation it takes is “laborious and exhausting”, says Dark. Not to mention not exactly lucrative at this point. Happily, however, Dark and Breen are far from disappearing from the operatic sphere. Dark is covering the role of Eboli in Opera Australia’s Don Carlos and sings the role of Marcellina in the new David McVicar production of The Marriage of Figaro. Breen appears in the Melbourne season of Miller-Heidke and Lally Katz’s The Rabbits for Opera Australia and is Beadle Bamford in Victorian Opera’s Sweeney Todd, among other engagements.

That work is their bedrock and helps keep the bank manager happy, but in their new situation they have also to make their own opportunities “and not sit on our bums and wait for work to come to us and assume it’s going to”, says Dark. “You’ve really got to get out there. The more we’ve done that the more we’ve loved that.”

They are incredibly disarming in their modesty about what they’re doing and their roll-up-the-sleeves attitude to getting the job done. Says Breen: “We’re not saying we’re experts at cabaret or that we’re particularly gifted, but what we do have is a preparedness to give it a red hot go and immerse ourselves in the style and emotion of the music, which is what we both get out of our opera work as well.

“It’s very rewarding to us as performers to be able to explore different avenues of that expression and delivery that isn’t always afforded on the operatic stage.”


The Vanguard, Sydney, April 29 and May 3; Adelaide Cabaret Festival, June 5-7; Queensland Cabaret Festival, June 14; Melbourne Cabaret Festival June 19-20.


Don Carlos, Opera Australia, Melbourne May 20-29; Sydney July 14-August 15; Sweeney Todd, Victorian Opera, Melbourne, July 18-25; The Marriage of Figaro, Opera Australia, Sydney, August 6-29; The Rabbits, Opera Australia, Melbourne, October 9-13