becalmed yearnings

indija mahoeddin: night songs and dinner in a dry dam, castlemaine festival

Night Songs

Night Songs

Night Songs

IN MICHAEL PATEN’S 2009 PROGRAM FOR THE CASTLEMAINE STATE FESTIVAL TWO SHOWS STOOD OUT AS NEW LOCALLY DEVELOPED HYBRID PERFORMANCE WORKS REACHING BEYOND THE ORTHODOXY OF THEIR FORM. BOTH NIGHT SONGS AND DINNER IN A DRY DAM WERE NURTURED IN SEEDPODS, PART OF A NATIONAL EMERGING ARTS INCUBATION PROGRAM DEVELOPED AND CURATED BY PUNCTUM INC, A CASTLEMAINE-BASED LIVE ARTS ORGANISATION.

Both shows work within a poetic medium to explore the tensions between, and destinies of, a husband and wife. However where Night Songs plunges into a vein of unknowing, Dinner in a Dry Dam discloses all its secrets before it begins. Where the former unfurls juxtapositions of loss and longing with a soulful impressionism, explicitly decentralising the narrativity of its text, the latter spells out its journey, baring all at the outset in a ‘dinner menu’ style program of convoluted Victorian era scene subtitles, then fixating on its central dilemma in an explicitly expositional text. It is perhaps a strategy to facilitate access for rural audiences less inclined towards the poetics of ambiguity.

Night Songs—a meditation on the triangulation of longing and love between a sailor, his sea widow and the open sea—reworks James Benedict’s original play, Aqua Lupus, in collaboration with visual artist Gabrielle Brauer, to re-emerge as a site specific multimedia installation beneath the Old Castlemaine Gaol.

An MP3 player provides each viewer with their own audio track so we may freely rove this fitting netherworld, as if in an ancient wreck awakening intimate memories of other people’s lives. At the bottom of a steep descent, tiny rooms are littered with fern-like forms or crisscrossed with a cat’s-cradle of string, some inhabited by almost tangible, lifelike human presences. I hear sounds of the sea and a dialogue about absence and presence. Each cell offers up a morsel of memory—projected phantasms exuding warmth, the woman who writes, the woman who waits in a womblike pod of shadow—each mockingly occluded behind sculptural white forms that shine luminously cold under UV light. Taut, angular lines of string hold captive a ghostly child’s gown, her memory caught up in the latitudes and longitudes of distance/connection or in the rigging of some vessel. Elsewhere her image points and laughs in endless repetition.

Drumming builds and a male voice describes a more external journey, his love for the sea, his longing for return, the letter he begins when the winds become still in some remote ocean. Besieged by a perilous calm, adrift on his own dreams, the unfulfilled adventurer is denied a triumphant return, his loved ones refused the satisfaction of a heroic battle narrative, the heartstrings connecting her life to his just slacken and ebb in a sinking oblivion.

Benedict’s text lilts eloquently toward its story, yet leaves it always partly submerged. The scenario resonates with the plight of war widows; of veterans lost to despair rather than to enemy fire; and with their would-be heroes, soldiers becalmed in a purposeless enterprise, the winds of a morally righteous crusade knocked out of their sails by a more cynical truth.

Punctum’s Dinner in a Dry Dam describes another case of an enterprise becalmed by weather patterns. In a drought-stricken rural community a sheep farmer and his ex-opera singer wife host a farewell banquet on the dam’s dry bed. The event occasions a domestic drama that pits pioneering tenacity against the creative courage to embrace change. At the core of this is the will to inflict death, a blood sacrifice of the last stud ram, for the sake of resurrection into new possibilities. For the farmer, as captain of this ‘vessel’, honour lies with his sinking farm, while his ‘first mate’ wife agitates for a break with the tradition of ‘going down with the ship.’

The starting point for this contemporary opera, described by director Jude Anderson as an elegy to the last great 200-year cycle between droughts, was to relate the tension between certain musical intervals to the dramatic tension between the couple. The libretto is the culmination of community interviews giving dramatic voice to the rural tragedies we often gloss over. Despite avant-garde sonic experimenting, humanity and drama snap sharply through the sparse team of mezzo-soprano, tenor and double bass. The fictional device of the opera singer helped to elevate the material, validating the use of high cultural form without alienating its primary constituency.

The church hall formally set for a banquet excited expectations by implicating us as guests but the material made us uneasy voyeurs to this bitter private struggle in which every development has been pre-empted by the ‘menu’ program. Nothing is left to experience afresh. We read, “I will then pick up a gun and leave. From beyond the dam banks you will hear a gunshot. That shot will mark the end of a bloodline. I will have killed our last remaining ram before walking off our property and closing the gate.” Indeed this outback Lady Macbeth prevails against her lord’s inertia, but with no great sense of transformation. And at the ringing out of her gunshot offstage we watch him—a blank, unflinching figure—in vain, for evidence this blood sacrifice will indeed prove a gift of life and not a living death.

While Night Songs immersed me in its amniotic fluidity, a balance of feminine longing and masculine yearnings both reaching for connections in a sea of uncertainty, Punctum’s Dinner progressed drily from a specifically located dischord toward an endpoint of decisive certainty and I am left wondering if the change has been suffered or truly embraced.

Night Songs, text James Benedict, installations Gabrielle Brauer, composer Tim James; Old Castlemaine Gaol, April 1-4; Dinner in a Dry Dam, director Jude Anderson, composer Carl Panuzzo, performers Carl Panuzzo, Penny Larkins, librettists Berni Janssen, Penny Sell, Emilie Collyer, Jude Anderson, design Ali McNicoll, lighting Grant Davis, video & sound artist Jacques Soddell; St Mary’s Church Hall, April 1-2, www.punctum.com.au; Castlemaine State Festival, March 27-April 5, www.castlemainefestival.com.au

RealTime issue #91 June-July 2009 pg. 45

© Indija Mahjoeddin; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 June 2009