The power of compulsion

Diana Klaosen

Rhonda Niemann, Matthew Dewey, Rachel Wenona, Ainslie Keele, Touch Wood

Rhonda Niemann, Matthew Dewey, Rachel Wenona, Ainslie Keele, Touch Wood

Rhonda Niemann, Matthew Dewey, Rachel Wenona, Ainslie Keele, Touch Wood

Recent productions by Hobart companies, IHOS’s Touch Wood and Scape Inc’s Who the Fuck is Erica Price (see review) while stylistically distinctive, shared certain concerns, notably human isolation, if not tragedy, and a non-judgmental view of aspects of mental instability. These bleak topics were countered by spellbindingly good productions, with nuanced performances bringing out the best in script and libretti.

Increasingly, IHOS Opera mentors younger performers through its Music Theatre Laboratory, presenting works-in-progress. These performances are arguably more successful than some of IHOS’s full-scale productions, several of which have been excessive in their attempts to incorporate every trick in the book. The Laboratory, says IHOS, is “a place of experiment, discovery and learning” that gives young Tasmanian performers and composers the opportunity to work with directors and composers of national and international renown.

The program begins with 3 short works, varied in musicality, style and content, but well suited for showcasing the potential of the performers. Butterflies Lost is inspired by a work-in-progress by writer Joe Bugden and is an evocative soundscape set in the Terezin ghetto, the way station to Auschwitz for Jewish artists. Recorded voiceovers include excerpts of Nazi propaganda. Five ragged children play in an elaborate, forbidding set that incorporates broken glass. There’s a strong sense of menace. This is a very moving, very visual work.

Allan Badalassi’s Harmony explores the human potential of healing, incorporating Baha’i prayer text and referencing recent hostilities in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The voices of a 10-person choir soar, their glorious harmonies amongst the highlights of the evening. Rosemary Austen’s Eden’s Bequest sets to music the poetry of Judy Grahn. Solo soprano Sarah Jones performs as a sort of Everywoman, singing a repetitive leitmotif with exquisite clarity and exhibiting a dancer’s physical expressivity. Three female actors represent the ages of woman, engaging in esoteric and symbolic mime and ritual.

The main work, Touch Wood, is a thorough success. Concept and direction are by prominent Finnish choreographer and director Juha Vanhakartano and its music is by Adelaide-based composer Claudio Pompili. Touch Wood is accessible without losing intellectual rigour and largely succeeds in being humorous without trivialising its subject, obsessive-compulsive disorder. It looks, as the program note says, “at the rituals and obsessions we create to maintain our sense of security and draws parallels between them and the superstitions of mediaeval times.” It asks whether we enjoy greater freedom nowadays or if it’s an illusion. Five characters play out their private compulsions and rituals, occasionally interacting in amusing or poignant ways. There are some well realised solos incorporating spoken word and movement. I found the hypochondriac, the religious fanatic and the “compulsive apologiser” particularly entertaining.

The set, lighting and costumes, reminiscent of German Expressionist cinema, are integral to the success of Touch Wood. The performance reaches a musical and dramatic peak with a clever group-choreographed “silly walk” around the stage. The climax is loud, tuneful and exuberant and seems to imply that the human spirit can overcome even impossible odds.

IHOS Music Theatre Laboratory, Touch Wood, Peacock Theatre, Salamanca Arts Centre, May 23-26

RealTime issue #50 Aug-Sept 2002 pg. 6

© Diana Klaosen; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 August 2002