Singing the poetry of Australian history

Keith Gallasch

Andrée Greenwell occupies a special place in the musical culture of Australia. Her distinctive compositions sit uniquely at the nexus of folk, opera, pop, jazz and avant garde trajectories. Her new show, Dreaming Transportation, Voice Portraits of the First Women of White Settlement at Port Jackson, is an inspired, 16-strong song cycle for 5 singers and 7 musicians. Given that the work is about women living in prisons, in towns and on the land in early 19th century Australia, it’s not surprising that UK folk music in its various modes is the dominant stylistic strand, sometimes plainly so but often more complexly composed as well as counterpointed dramatically by instrumental scoring that is vigorously of our own time.

The songs often work by juxtaposition, a relatively simple, sexy folk-like melody, for example, is followed by David Hewitt’s taut, deep drumming introducing Deborah Conway’s impassioned song to a rapist that swings into cabaret (with accordion accompaniment) without ever losing its folk rock impulse. Text and music offer quite an emotional journey in which women suffer prison (sometimes going mad) and emerge from it seeking livelihoods; an adventurous independent woman fights for and wins land; in a drought, a voice “hope(s) for a less desolate tomorrow”; and in a marvellous diary, a mother of 12 (“members of my little jury”) writes “My heart is a town.” Women write of missing their homes in Britain, their lovers and husbands (with a fine sensuality), and, in a grim litany, of missing their identity.

Just as Greenwell found an ideal writing partner for the earlier Laquiem in Kathleen Mary Fallon, so she has chosen wisely again. Jordie Albiston’s Botany Bay Document-A Poetic History of the Women of Botany Bay (Black Pepper Press 1996 nla) takes the letters and other writings of a range of women from early settlement and arranges them on the page into an embracing poetry, true to the women but also Albiston’s own poetic voice. Greenwell’s settings of a selection of these is achieved with deceptive ease, such is the match of words and music.

Dreaming Transportation is a multimedia work with slide and video projections, documentary touches and bits of acting, but the best thing about it is the music. In this Greenwell is served very well by her singers. Sopranos Christine Douglas and Miriam Allan not only provide an operatic lyricism and intensity (and a sublime duet) but also occasional portraits of the upper classes. Actor-singers Amie McKenna and Justine Clark offer simpler but emotionally rich voices and are especially adroit in the folk idiom. Deborah Conway fuses folk and her own brand of pop-charged energy bringing an extra weight to the show. That such voices can co-exist in the same space is a testament to the totality that Greenwell has created.

Theatrically however Dreaming Transportation is an uneasy totality, held together by the music but otherwise threatening to fragment. Essentially the show is a series of songs in concert format (the composer asks the audience not to applaud until the end of the show). There’s no through-narrative, which is fine, it is after all a collection of portraits. Sometimes songs are supported by visual imagery. Sometimes they are bridged by spoken text or brief, acted scenes. The singers are simply costumed and, for the most part, enter and leave casually. They are framed by a semi-circle of musicians. All of this is superficially satisfactory, but various inconsistencies and failures to follow through rob the show of the power it could and should have. The most striking of these is in the visual material.

Dreaming Transportation begins strongly and immersively on the 3 tall screens behind the musicians, with camera shots of a late 18th century ship filmed close to its timbers, the mast and the water flowing past. The strength of this kind of imagery and the later film of a body being punished (in Parramatta’s infamous Female Factory), of a head shaven and then, powerfully, of different parts of the body (hands, lungs, feet) is that it is evocative rather than simply illustrative and that it has a consistency of visual style. Other images projected in the show were doggedly literal (slides of cartoons of Newgate prison), or pointless (Sydney forming over 200 years on the banks of its harbour) or, like some of the interpolated text (lists of facts which thankfully seemed to run out), ploddingly documentary. The overall effect was of pickings from a ragbag of imagery, an educational cut and paste. Andrée Greenwell is an accomplished filmmaker—someone should commission her and her collaborators to visually through-compose Dreaming Transportation.

Part of Laquiem’s power was that it exploited the concert format. Greenwell’s decision in the new work to costume her 5 singers in early 19th century style dresses pushes the performance into an uneasy place between concert and theatre. Perhaps it would have been better to stay away from costume, especially since at one point the non-costumed Greenwell steps away from her conducting position and sings centre stage. As for the theatricality of the piece, sometimes it’s deft, funny and moving, sometimes cutely illustrative. Again, there’s insufficient consistency of vision. As well, any text added outside of Albiston’s contribution to the songs should be given to her to adapt in the spirit of her poetry, if it’s needed at all.

What was consistent was the audience’s rapturous response to the music, if in some doubt about other elements of the work. Greenwell-Albiston should have a winner on their hands. The show is being recorded by ABC Radio this week and hopefully ABC Enterprises will have the wisdom to see that a CD of Dreaming Transportation could sell, such is the calibre of Greenwell’s superior tune writing, its excellent scoring for a small group of virtuosic musicians and, not least, the presence of Deborah Conway. Dreaming Transportation needs another stage of development and then it should be ripe for touring, everywhere.

Dreaming Transportation, composer & artistic director Andrée Greenwell, poet & librettist Jordie Albiston, staging director Christopher Ryan, dramaturg Francesca Smith, digital artist & set designer Katerina Stratos, video artist Toby Oliver, costumes Jenny Irwin, lighting Sydney Bouhaniche; consultant producer Anna Messariti. Sydney Festival, Riverside Theatres, Parramatta, Jan 22-25

RealTime issue #53 Feb-March 2003 pg. 46

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

1 February 2003