return of the gods

keith gallasch enters the world of the lost echo

Amber McMahon, Deborah Mailman

Amber McMahon, Deborah Mailman

Amber McMahon, Deborah Mailman

TO BEGIN AT THE END. IN THE SONG OF ORPHEUS, THE FINAL ACT OF THE BARRIE KOSKY-TOM WRIGHT THEATRICAL EPIC THE LOST ECHO, THE STAGE IS FILLED WITH BEDRAGGLED, EXHAUSTED FIGURES, MANY STRIPPED TO THEIR UNDERWEAR AND SEATED ON PLASTIC CHAIRS. TWO MEN IN BLUE BODY BAGS ARE NEAR DEAD, FROM TIME TO TIME TOPPLING TO THE FLOOR

We may well be in the underworld that Orpheus entered in search of his Eurydice and simultaneously immersed in the story of Narcissus (wrapped in photographs) and Echo (doomed forever to repeat the words she’s just heard), but mood and performance are predominantly embodied in a performance of Schubert’s Wintereisse song cycle. For the anonymous singers in this limbo of lost love there is no heavenly consolation for their sorrow, no gods to blame or to turn to, no sense-making cosmology. Schubert’s love madness is doomed to repetition and echo, lost in a romantic narcissism that will reverberate into the 20th century and the present as psychology. Nor is it now a young man’s angst, the lead being taken by an older man (Peter Carroll in superb voice and with bursts of mad energy) and then, in turn, the voices of all the key players, young, old, male and female.

The Act IV stage seems full of the ghosts (the many mythic roles these actors have played in The Lost Echo’s earlier acts) of ancient Graeco-Roman polytheism as told by Ovid. We have journeyed from creation, and its near undoing in the story of Phaeton taking on his father’s chariot of the sun, into a plethora of grimly funny and then dark, demanding tales. In Acts I and II gods, demi-gods and humans mingle and the line between humans, flora and fauna is easily traversed, as in many creation myths, in cruel or occasionally kindly metamorphoses enacted by the gods. In Act III, a version of Euripides’The Bacchae, an early rationalist and pragmatic stand is taken against women’s secret Bacchanalian rites with disastrous results for its politician instigator, Pentheus; but the seeds of doubt have been sown and a new order prophesied. And so, some six to seven stage hours after creation, we find ourselves in the eerie world of Act IV’s Wintereisse.

The grand arc of this journey, from polytheistic plenitude to its mere echo, is realised in a bravura display of story-telling techniques. Myth is the stuff of story-telling and Kosky and Wright structure The Lost Echo around ways of telling, often true to Ovid’s methods and spirit. For these tellings, the raked stage is essentially bare if frequently transformed by the deployment and choreographing of the Actors Company and a chorus of NIDA students, lighting, objects and huge concrete and glass rooms that come and go, hovering in the space. Most commonly tellers address the audience directly and action either emerges around them or absorbs them into it.

Act I is a wild, dense world populated with many figures, suited gods, strange boy-girl creatures with bloodied genitals and a mass of uniformed school children among whom is Callisto (Amber McMahon). The act begins with Teiresias (John Gaden), seer and once-upon-a-time a woman, as our narrator describing Phaeton’s near destruction of the world as he loses control of Jove’s horses who pull the sun across the skies, the disaster graphically evoking our own fears of environmental ruin. But engrossing plain telling soon expands into what Kosky describes in the program notes as “an erotic satyr-panto”, all movement, grimly funny farce and music—Coward, Cavalli (from his 17th century opera, Callisto), Kern and others springing out of tales as musical and theatrical forms meet seamlessly and magically metamorphose into 21st century hybridised theatre.
Paul Capsis (with fan), John Gaden, Dan Spielman, Deborah Mailman, Brandon Burke, Hayley McElhinney, Marta Dusseldorf, The Lost Echo

Paul Capsis (with fan), John Gaden, Dan Spielman, Deborah Mailman, Brandon Burke, Hayley McElhinney, Marta Dusseldorf, The Lost Echo

Paul Capsis (with fan), John Gaden, Dan Spielman, Deborah Mailman, Brandon Burke, Hayley McElhinney, Marta Dusseldorf, The Lost Echo

Kosky and Wright push Ovid’s transformations into our times, preoccupations and fetishes. When Jove disguises himself as Diana to seduce the young Callisto it’s as if exploiting a schoolgirl lesbian attraction—Jove transforms himself into an older schoolgirl, but she is played by Paul Capsis. Amber McMahon is superb as the eager, powerless, bewildered child trapped by manipulative adults including Pamela Rabe’s vengeful gothic cocktail queen Juno, all elegance a-totter, the actress executing a superb near fall when slipping on a puddle of semen. Callisto is punished for a sin not her own by being transformed into a bear, our sense of her sheer vulnerability heightened by her nakedness save for a cheap bear mask. Her final metamorphosis, a kind of redemption, is to become the Bear of the heavens, and the theatre fills with stars.

In Act II each telling of profound loss is very much the performance: the female speakers appear downstage, addressing us intimately but with action elsewhere producing a disturbing visual and thematic counterpoint, for example, an orgiastic mass of men in a glass-fronted room. Mostly we can’t hear them but, phalluses in hand, they will burst into song or dance. Hayley McElhinney as the suicidal Myrrha fatefully desires her father, Rabe as the nymph Salmacis rapaciously becomes one with Hermaphroditus, Marta Dusseldorf as proud Arachne weaves her portrait of the gods as brutal seducers and is turned into a spider by Minerva, spited goddess of weaving. In the final story, there’s a more layered telling. Procne (McMahon) tells of her sister (Deborah Mailman) Philomela’s plight, her tongue torn out by Procne’s husband after raping her. Philomela, by her side in an identical dress simultaneously signs the story, the lyrical dance of her hands increasingly desperate as we learn how the sisters kill Procne’s son and feed him to his father, and the gods benignly turn the sisters into birds. The stage now fills with birds of an altogether secular kind, the rest of the cast, male and female, as Las Vegas showgirls with high feather head dresses, glittering gowns and high heels in slow procession aptly singing Purcell’s “Remember me, but ah! forget my fate” from Dido and Aeneas. Our anthropomorphism is but an echo of ancient metamorphoses and kitsch becomes high poetry as Mailman’s silent scream visually pierces such aural beauty, Philomela’s pain undiminished.

In Act III Dan Spielman adroitly deploys curious speech rhythms and a quirky physicality to create an otherworldly Bacchus, drawing us into his tale which soon transforms into Euripides’The Bacchae staged in a toilet block and the only portion of The Lost Echo that approaches conventional theatricality. In a mix of argument, song and farce that climaxes in the bloody demise of the stiff, unyielding and suited Pentheus (Martin Blum), we encounter Tieresias (Gaden) and Cadmus (Peter Carroll) all frocked up. They could be off to the Mardi Gras, but it’s the secret Dionysian women’s’rites, taboo to men and extremely dangerous, with a deep cultural and spiritual appeal that appals the censorious Pentheus who would like women to simply sew, spin, work. Now the music is Bach, monotheistic, supremely orderly but equally complex, juxtaposed with Kosky’s settings of Ladino songs (Jewish-Spanish, echoes of kindred monotheisms).
<img src="http://www.realtime.org.au/wp-content/uploads/art/0/92_kg_lostecho_105.jpg" alt="Martin Blum, Peter Carroll, John Gaden
The Lost Echo
“>

Martin Blum, Peter Carroll, John Gaden
The Lost Echo

Act IV takes us back into story-tellings, but the Wintereisse songs (with “Blame it on the Boogie” as antidote and some astonishingly vigorous dancing from the whole cast) do most of the work, Kosky describing them as “two dozen heart breaking postcards from a journey into exile”, a reminder too of the poet Ovid exiled from his beloved Rome for slighting imperial Augustus. Amidst the songs and Echo (McElhinney) and Narcissus’(Eden Falk) distress, Paul Capsis enacts another secular metamorphosis, drolly delivering cooking instructions to a bothersome caller, banal interruptions to exquisite miseries.

All this, and more! The Lost Echo was a rare and treasurable theatrical experience, a work of intelligence and aesthetic boldness on a scale rarely encountered in our theatres. Kosky himself was a palpable presence, playing piano and conducting throughout, visible in his prompt pit. There was committed and convincing singing and dancing from the Actors’Company (notably Carroll, Spielman and Capsis, outside his usual territory) and the NIDA students, and great performances—among the many: Mailman as a totally convincing blokey Satirino and the eloquently silent Philomela; all the women story-tellers of Act II (including Colin Moody as Beryl); Spielman’s Bacchus, Peter Carroll’s singer in Act IV and Pamela Rabe’s Juno.

If Acts III and IV don’t quite have the power of I and II (which could be re-staged as a satisfying whole) they nonetheless formally transform the thematic and aesthetic world of the first two, where polytheism is a given, into something more recognisably our own and, so, complete a great theatrical journey. Of course, it’s all ours, ancient and modern, part of our European heritage, but too much of it has become echo.

We might ask, however, what is more agreeable—the indifference of one God, the cruel antics of many, or lonely interiority? That aside, The Lost Echo calls up myth via Ovid to amplify its echoes and resonances into something palpable and contemporary. At a time when the warriors of the culture wars and anti-sedition legislation shut down civil rights, tearing out the tongues of dissent and difference, we should ask, as playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker does in The Love of the Nightingale:

What is a myth? The oblique image of an unwanted truth, reverberating through time…

Sydney Theatre Company, The Lost Echo, director, musical director, designer Barrie Kosky, translator, dramaturg, writer Tom Wright, performers STC Actors Company, NIDA 2nd Year Drama Students, choreographer Lisa O’Dea, co-designer Ralph Myers, costumes Alice Babidge, lighting Damien Cooper, sound design Max Lyandvert; Sydney Theatre, Sept 9-30

RealTime issue #76 Dec-Jan 2006 pg. 36-

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

1 December 2006