A virago took my baby!

Laura Ginters

This title suggests the common view we have of Medea, who slaughters her children supposedly out of jealousy when her husband leaves her. It’s a powerful and enduring myth—she’s the ultimate Bad Mother. (And our own continuing horror/fascination with Lindy Chamberlain testifies to this phenomenon.)

In another night: medea Nigel Kellaway pairs this classic with one from the modern repertoire, Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Albee’s play answers Medea, with George killing off the (imaginary) child the couple has raised, after a night of cold fury, slugging it out in the living room in front of transfixed guests (a role designated for the audience).

This work is less concerned with the children’s deaths, though, than their parents’ lives: it is the Jason/George/Nigel and Medea/Martha/Reggie show. (Indeed, later on “Nigel” has little patience with “Reggie’s” [Regina Heilmann] pillow-baby smothering.)

Welcome to the Games that Lovers Play—or at least the rather less innocent and more manipulative ones long-term couples play. You have to know someone very well indeed to unerringly home in on and bring out their worst every time—or, in the case of long-time collaborators Kellaway and Heilmann, their best, as in this production.

another night isn’t just about middle-aged dysfunction, nor does it merely display the rubble of plundered texts. It also has more profound comments to make on the material itself and there is a clear logic at work which rebuilds these stories into a commentary on those same old, same old stories we fall back on, and the dead-end, self/mutually destructive grooves we lapse into. It’s an invitation to think anew.

This we particularly see through an especially gorgeous feature of this production, the 18th century Clérambault Medée cantata, sung by counter tenor Peretta Anggerek. The cantata itself stops short of the dastardly deed of infanticide and thus cuts short the natural conclusion of the Medea story. The pierced, tattooed, half-naked body-builder is not our usual image of an opera singer, and Anggerek embodying Medea the foreigner, Medea the enchantress is thus a double reminder that things aren’t always what they seem and assumptions can be dangerous. This Medea might well tell a different tale from the one that has repeatedly been told of her.

The set also echoes this invitation to shake out our preconceptions. Beginning mostly in darkness, all we can see are the grand piano downstage right and, prominently centre stage, a golden sofa (with Heilmann resplendent upon it).

Uh oh. In the last month both a playwright and a designer have commented separately to me on how much they hate “sofa” theatre, the writer claiming that it was almost worth checking in advance to see if there was a sofa on the set before buying a ticket: it’s become shorthand for unadventurous, naturalistic TV theatre-family drama at its most banal. Of course that doesn’t turn out to be the case here (though no one takes the credit for the set design), and a black gauze screen swings up to reveal 3 more musicians, behind them a cascade of scarlet drapes descend from ceiling height creating performance spaces on several levels.

What I also find particularly fascinating in this work is its lively conversation with opera in its high art form, rather than in its original (and opera Project) understanding of a “work” in its broadest sense.

Kellaway sways towards opera with live music (4 very talented musicians, including a truly delightful trio of harpsichord, baroque violin and viola da gamba), surtitles and the outstanding talents of Anggerek. At the same time, the sumptuous artificiality that is opera is neatly paraphrased/parodied by the ballerina-in-the-jewellery-box that is Anggerek in his opening scene; framed by red curtains, dressed in golden silk, revolving jerkily to the sounds of appealing music. An ironic answer to the all too familiar “park and bark” school of opera performance?

While static display is not part of Kellaway’s aesthetic, display certainly is, and Annemaree Dalziel again contributes costumes. Most gorgeous are Kellaway and Heilmann’s robes with full swishy skirts—great for flouncing about the stage—a sumptuous pink and gold for Heilmann, regal purple with frills for Kellaway. And Anggerek’s 18th century inspired half gown (all the better to see your pierced nipples and tatts with) is truly fab.

This show is also, I feel, The opera Project at its most accessible yet. Surtitles! A play (well, movie) we all know! Of course, there’s Heiner Müller mixed in there too with his Medea Material, but even he is digestible, given enough context, as we are here—and he certainly provides the text for some of the most theatrical and striking moments of the piece, especially in ‘solos’ by Kellaway and Heilmann.

Heilmann in her toxic frock sequence is wonderful: as she plans doom for Jason’s bride-to-be, she brings it (literally) on herself—and, unwittingly, thousands of years of condemnation with it. Twitching and grimacing on the floor, this lethal charmer is mesmerising.

That Kellaway revels in the language and music and their interplay in this production is clear. The sung and spoken texts are better integrated here than ever before, and they work powerfully off one another. An extract of Müller’s Landscape with Argonauts transforms into a visually and aurally arresting duet between Anggerek singing the cantata on the top level of the stage with Kellaway standing immediately below him, spitting out the text in the music’s pauses.

At the end, the screen descends once more, again cutting off the musicians from the performers, returning us to the beginning, and “Nigel” sends the “children” (the musicians) off to bed, before wandering off himself.

Everyone has gone except Medea who remains sprawled on her couch, her fiery, golden chariot; there before it begins, there after it ends. After 2500 years, she’s not going to stand for being pushed around/pushed off stage anymore—she concludes the evening with a defiant “Fuck you, Nigel!” But was anyone listening? Well, yes, the “guests” were still there and paying close attention.

The opera Project Inc, another night: medea, director Nigel Kellaway, performers Nigel Kellaway, Regina Heilmann, countertenor/narrator Peretta Anggerek, piano Michael Bell, baroque violin Margaret Howard, viola da gamba Catherine Tabrett, harpsichord Nigel Ubrihien, lighting/production Simon Wise, costumes Annemaree Dalziel, music Clérambault, Poulenc, Schubert, Melissa Seeto, Performance Space, Sydney April 30-May 10

RealTime issue #55 June-July 2003 pg. 32

© Laura Ginters; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 June 2003
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