Myth-singing

Keith Gallasch

Georgie Read, Song of Ghosts

Georgie Read, Song of Ghosts

The world of war first enters through our ears in Song of Ghosts: the chilling, heavy, sharp tread of army boots along the nearby road draws close. Soldiers course through the courtyard audience belting out their ‘grunt’ chorus, a litany of fear and helplessness and a denial of moral responsibility, expressed with relentless mechanical vigour and battering volume. We are ordered after the troop into the theatre, a smoking, nightmarish installation of ruin and carnage, littered with TV monitors, saturated with the rumble and misery of war. This is the Trojan War, played not as widescreen historical fantasy but as an immersive, familiar war of the moment, part graphically horrific, part mass-mediated, if sharing with the movie Troy the same Achilles-Hector slice of Homer’s Iliad.

Two entwining forces consume us in Song of Ghosts: the sustained physical power of the performances en masse and solo, and the sound world they inhabit. This is PACT Youth Theatre working at a new level of intensity and precision, partly the result of the training of the imPACT ensemble, partly the presence of students from the Charles Sturt University theatre course in this production, and certainly driven by the current artistic directorship of Regina Heilmann and Chris Murphy and aided by Lee Wilson’s well-defined movement direction. The sound is an organic mix of the performers’ choral strength, the dark melancholy and pain of the live music (composed for Nexas Sax Quartet by Margery Smith) and the sound design (Gail Priest) with which it fuses. These merge in an anxiety-inducing, hollowing out of the world on a vast battle field. This is truly a song of ghosts, a music theatre of the dead haunting the present.

The physical performance dynamically contrasts the unnerving momentum of military and mob movement with smaller, occasional tableaux of isolation, despair and intimacy beside persistent images of characters locked into obsessive states of being. Amidst the marching and chanting, the group assaults and murders, mass panics and near desertions, individuals anchor the Iliad story—Helen with her endless lascivious gyrations, the caged Cassandra’s possessed writhings, a television reporter’s deadpan delivery of the hyperbolic Homeric narrative, and the unpredictable Achilles, all restless rock’n’roll machismo and charisma.

As much as this is Homer’s story it also belongs to Bosnia, to Kosovo and Iraq, whether referenced in video images or in language that without notice shifts gear from classical imagery to, for example, “three generations of the the Zubayev family were shot to death in their backyard” as Patroclus is strung up by Hector’s soldiers. We are told the origins and practices of the sniper (paralleled in Homer with a Trojan master archer singling out an important Greek target) and there is entertainment for the troops from an affecting, androgynous singer. The homoerotic wrestling match between Achilles and Patroclus for the former’s armour is fought over a leather jacket. Present and semi-mythic past become parallel universes.

Song of Ghosts is immersive, if you roll with it and let the wartime delirium set in. Even if you know your Iliad you’re pretty soon adrift in the cut and paste script (borrowings from various sources along with some original writing). After some initial “Who?” and “What?” mutterings, the young audience around me in a packed house settled into the viscerality of the production with its constant delivery of new images of horror and grieving, and were likely to later identify in a new way with Helen’s “There was a world…or was it a dream?” Performances sometimes teetered precariously on the edge of melodrama as did the production overall, relentlessness at nearly every level. But if Song of Ghosts took no prisoners it nonetheless made us willing victims to its consistency of vision, to its song of horror and of a war in which we as a nation are currently complicit.

PACT Youth Theatre & Sydney Conservatorium of Music, Song of Ghosts, director Regina Heilmann with Chris Murphy, movement Lee Wilson, dramaturg/writer Bryoni Trezise, composer Margery Smith, musicians Nexas Sax Quartet, sound design Gail Priest, set/costume design Kate Shanahan, lighting Shane Stevens, slides Heidrun Löhr, video Samuel James; PACT Theatre, April 15-25

RealTime issue #61 June-July 2004 pg. 14

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 June 2004
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