Sounding off in the theatre

Jonathan Marshall on The Ennio Morricone Experience, Margaret Trail and The eleventh Hour

Melbourne Fringe 2002 had a strong music and sound program. The Ennio Morricone Experience for example was presided over by new music champion and playful percussionist Graeme Leak and trumpeter cum smooth, Hispano-lounge raconteur Patrick Cronin (Texicali Rose), who enlisted seriously mugging bass-player Daniel Witton (Desoxy, Blue Grassy Knoll), orchestral percussionist David Hewitt and pianist/oboist Boris Conley.

A doyen of 20th century musical avant garde-ism, Morricone scored everything from The Mission to Once Upon a Time in America and the Mediterranean schlock fields of Spaghetti Westerns–most famously the Sergio Leone/Clint Eastwood trilogy. Although eccentric favourites like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly were featured, Morricone’s 1960s-pop title-songs were also resuscitated (sung with tongue-in-cheek passion by Witton). These were punctuated with games involving both abstract or eerie sound effects and directly representational ones (Witton sounded out a hiding gunslinger using baby Blundstones on sand, while Cronin strode about with aggressive, amplified-Cornflake-crunches as the Man With No Name).

Leak and Hewitt employed inventive instrumental transpositions to amplify the dry yet active humour of their creative interpretations. Leak’s trademark homemade “string-cans” appeared, as did a bowed-saw. The choreography of multiple instruments was often dazzling (Leak mastered an extended drum-kit, whistle, hand-bell, chimes, drum-pads, and vocal “hoo-hahs!”, all in 2 bars). Restrained comic understatement reigned throughout, paradoxically enhanced by Witton’s uniquely exaggerated facial expressions. Minor gestures and nuances thereby became highly charged, conveying the performers’ idiosyncratic characters through minimal means. It was like peering through glass into a 1960s recording booth at a group of eccentric musicians amusing themselves between takes.

Margaret Trail meanwhile voiced poetico-sonic musings on the alluring shadows that lie beneath our superficial culture. Four Nights in a Dark Room employed text, performance art, sonic-layering and free jazz in a fashion whose best known precedessor is Laurie Anderson (a sample of whom was hidden within the soundscape).

Lunar transformations, lycanthropy and wolf symbolism provided Trail’s thematic foci. In a closely measured yet remarkably unaffected style, she related tales of the unknown creeping into daily banalities. Trail eschewed the precise gestural vocabulary which underscored her earlier work, K’Ting! (2000), preferring here a simpler physical presence to support the evenly paused, rhythmically open, spoken-word and recorded text. We heard the story of a bizarre break-in, in which thieves stole her wolf recordings, and the subsequent police investigation, leading her friend to conclude: “We’re in a horror movie! This explains the full moon, the disappearance of your werewolf sounds and the unusually attractive police.”

Chris Lewis co-produced the dark, crinkly soundscapes sprinkled throughout Four Nights, at one point performing an impressive drum-kit-noise solo–an absorbing representation of the dialectic between control and disorder, meaningful allusions and meaningless chance which Four Rooms explored.

Eleventh Hour was Fringe’s dramatic highlight. The company mounted an inaugural season at a former church hall, with peeling walls rich in atmospheric drama. Unlike Melbourne’s actor-driven companies (Red Stitch, Hoist), or writers’ companies (Random Cow, Ranters), Eleventh Hour comes from the profoundly dramaturgical vision of two directors–William Henderson and Anne Thompson–overseeing sparse staging and restrained acting nevertheless deeply rooted in the texts’ rhythms and nuances.

The splicing of Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape with Sarah Kane’s Crave into a single night was an invigorating experiment, but Brecht’s Fear and Misery of the Third Reich was the more successful of the 2 evenings. Fear and Misery… was indeed the antithesis of Melbourne Workers’ Theatre’s Fever (see review). It was, by contrast, firmly located within a specific historical situation (Germany under the Third Reich) yet nevertheless eloquently conveyed the lessons this period offers today. In both Eleventh Hour shows, the company exemplified contemporary Brechtian performance: characters and emotions were strongly present on stage, yet without the suggestion of theatrical ‘illusion’, producing moving theatre which slipped between objectively (Brecht) and poetically (Beckett) depicting anguished human histories.

At one point Brian Lipson acted a playful commentator who spoke of “the Old” marching forward and presenting itself as “the New”, while the new itself was dressed down as the old. Abject surges of political rhetoric flourished in the face of obfuscation, historical amnesia and the lack of denunciation. Our silence and forgetfulness ensured our compliance. Who else but Brecht could today speak of the fascists’ rise as not the product of a collective, Satanic “madness”, but rather the reasoned collaboration of wealthy industrialists and ruthlessly efficient right wing populists, of the disenfranchisement of the workers within daily politics as being not only a cause of World War II but its lasting legacy?

It will take artists employing both the tools of the new and “the old” (Anthill, the APG, Brecht, socialism) to bring forth again these forgotten yet vital truths, as war’s simplistic drumhead floods our ears again.

The Ennio Morricone Experience, North Melbourne Town Hall, Sept 27-Oct13; Four Nights in a Dark Room, performer, deviser, composer Margaret Trail, performer/part-composer Chris Lewis, Erwin Rado Theatre, Oct 10-13; Because of the Increasing Disorder: Brecht, Beckett, Kane, alternating program of Krapp’s Last Tape/Crave and Fear and Misery of the Third Reich, Eleventh Hour Theatre Co, co-directors/composers Anne Thompson, William Henderson; stage design Adrienne Chisholm; lighting Nik Pajanti; performers Brian Lipson, Tom Considine, Heather Bolton, David Tredinnick, Fiona Todd, Eleventh Hour Theatre, Sept 26-Oct 13.

RealTime issue #52 Dec-Jan 2002 pg. web

© Jonathan Marshall; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 2002
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