Journalist Jane Hutcheon makes live performance debut with intimate tale

By George Palathingal, Cassie Tongue, Jill Sykes, Harriet Cunningham and Shamim Razavi

Artist Vicki Van Hout during a rehearsal for Thaw. Credit:Rhett Wyman

It wouldn’t be summer in Sydney without the Sydney Festival, featuring a diversity of cultural events throughout January. Here our critics review the first week of gigs, dance and theatre.

Circus

The Pulse, ★★★★★
Gravity and Other Myths, Roslyn Packer Theatre, January 8
Reviewed by Jill Sykes

The Pulse is an exhilarating blend of gymnastics, theatre, circus, dance and choral music by the Adelaide-based group Gravity & Other Myths. Time and again it offers feats of physical ingenuity and daring that make you gasp.

Twenty-two acrobatic performers are hurled and caught in twisting flight. They climb up knees, backs and shoulders to reach as many as four in a towering human pole, and many more in monumental structures, from which they come down in mesmerising collective descents.

Physical theatre company Gravity and Other Myths presents The Pulse.Credit:Anna Kucera

They work in dazzling ensembles doing different sequences across the stage, never colliding, and some of them have dancing solos that provide cool interludes amongst the meticulously choreographed hurly-burly that characterises most of the 70-minute show.

It includes 26 choristers of the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs’ VOX, who move among the gymnastic performers, very much a part of the action as well as giving a vivid rendition of Ekrem Eli Phoenix’s exciting bold score.

This true blend of visual and aural elements in The Pulse is heightened to invigorating theatricality by Darcy Grant’s imaginative direction and Geoff Cobham’s creative lighting.

And there is another important factor: the sense of trust and caring between the performers. In reaching out to each other, they propel a feeling of community into the audience, and that is very special.

Music

James Morrison Quartet with William Barton, ★★★
Speakers Corner, January 9
Reviewed by Shamim Razavi

The clever outdoor performance space created for a COVID-cautious Sydney Festival implausibly wedged between St Mary’s Cathedral and Cook + Philip Pool sparks with magic this night.

The magic comes from the twin holy cows of jazz standards and improvisation, the stern sobriety of Catholic gothic architecture, and the profound ancestral memory invoked by Barton with his spellbinding didgeridoo – fusing to give a glimpse of something uniquely Australian.

The best trick of the night was the orchestration of the opening piece First Rain whose initial notes coincided with the first and mercifully last downpour of the night.

James Morrison Quartet and William Barton on stage.Credit:Jacquie Manning

This striking composition harmonises two competing visions of rain with Barton’s propulsive beats echoing fat raindrops on country and Morrison’s soaring trumpet lines suggesting a romanticised urban storm.

The two visions playfully unite in a jam between the two virtuosos – the trumpet suggesting a melody which is then picked up and developed by the didgeridoo and then thrown back to Morrison – showing mutual respect and equality in their collaboration.

Indeed, several of the pieces tonight explore the theme of unity and diversity. Like flowers of different hue and form, these disparate musical traditions combine to create a sonic garden more beautiful and interesting than each individual element.

This beauty is demonstrated with a true flourish in a piece sung by Barton in the Kalkadunga language in which the eponymous quartet blend in with his composition with humility in the presence of greatness.It is disappointing, then, that every so often Barton leaves the stage and the James Morrison Quartet serve comparatively mundane jazz pieces.

Perhaps they don’t have enough joint material to fill a 75-minute set, but it seems especially incongruous with the theme of unity and equality that only jazz gets the solo spotlight, never the didgeridoo. The Quartet do their thing as entertainingly and skilfully as always, but it feels disjointed and ordinary compared to the alchemy they tap with Barton.

As a work in progress brought to the festival stage, the Barton/Morrison collaborations give hope for more and greater magic to come.

Amyl and the Sniffers, ★★★★
Speakers Corner, January 6
Reviewed by George Palathingal

You could read plenty into the fact that within 10 minutes of this year’s controversial Sydney Festival, the opening act and its crowd were loudly chanting “Go f— yourself” – but that would be a tad disingenuous.

Amyl and the Sniffers open Sydney Festival 2022.

Melbourne four-piece Amyl and the Sniffers have been snarling and thrashing their way through the Australian pub/punk-rock scene (and far beyond) with such attitude since 2016 and, frankly, you wouldn’t have it any other way. They yet again prove to be exhilarating and unmistakably special, even on an evening fraught with difficulties, technical and otherwise.

Aside from that latest irritant Omicron contributing to an early lack of atmosphere – this pop-up venue in front of St Mary’s Cathedral was only half full and sensibly seated at its 7pm start time – the sound was initially as thin as the audience, and the band had distributed the wrong set list among themselves. Later, lead singer Amy Taylor even has her mic give out on her.

But none of this was ever going to stop Taylor, the kind of woman you imagine could start the best party in the worst possible place. Taking charge at the initial confusion, she announces the band should start with Guided by Angels, the surly opener of current album Comfort to Me, and work things out from there.

The Melbourne four-piece again proved to be exhilarating and unmistakably special.

She’s quickly making friends in the front row during GFY (see the opening paragraph to see what that stands for) and sees the sense in taking a crowd request for the bass-led Got You while lead guitarist Dec Martens finds the correct setlist on his phone.

By the following Starfire 500, Taylor has everyone out of their seats, the sound has miraculously improved and the band have not only found their setlists, they’ve found their mojo – and they don’t look back.

Stoic bassist Gus Romer continues to hold things together on his end, Bryce Wilson powers through on drums and Martens thrills with a seemingly endless supply of hard riffs and ripping solos.

And while few would call Taylor a great singer, fewer still would deny her enormous charisma and charm (especially when she grins sweetly through Security as she barks its lyrics to the men in the hi-vis vests). Knifey, her ode to self-protection, powerfully finds the sweet spot between toughness and tenderness, too.

After an occasionally shambolic hour there’s no encore but that proves relatively easy to accept – the job of lighting a fire under the Sydney Festival has been emphatically accomplished.

Theatre

Lost in Shanghai, ★★★
Seymour Centre
Reviewed by Harriet Cunningham

War correspondent, interviewer, presenter, writer… and now performer. Jane Hutcheon has had many roles in her long and distinguished career as a journalist. Lost in Shanghai is her first foray into live performance, developed in conjuction with Contemporary Asian Australian Performance and co-directed by William Yang and Tasnim Hossai.

Hutcheon’s story – the exploration of her mother’s upbringing in 1920s Shanghai – is fascinating. The photos, projected onto the screen across the back of the stage, conjure up a magical past: colonial Shanghai, with its colonnades and grand palaces; the gracious pace of expat life in the French Concession; and Hong Kong, a picturesque British outpost clinging to the side of a mountain.

Jane Hutcheon in Lost in Shanghai.

The 90-minute show becomes a voyage across a century framed by the life Hutcheon’s mother, who is now 99, and punctuated by world events experienced as a foreign correspondent, news anchor and participant.

The slide show story is a format made memorable, almost single-handedly, by artist and photographer William Yang, and he is co-director on this project. The material is great. The presenter is a seasoned storyteller. So why does Lost in Shanghai not work?

Part of it may be due to new work teething troubles. Hutcheon seemed nervous on the first night and visibly rattled by a few clunky transitions. The atmospheric music, played live by composer performer Terumi Narushima, sat uncomfortably between the background and the foreground. But, more than that, Hutcheon never quite settled into the reflective rhythm which characterises Yang’s work, nor yet did she find her own pace.

Hutcheon’s skills as an interviewer and reporter are legendary but she has not yet embraced a place centre stage. She insists that this story is inspired by the urgent need to document her mother’s extraordinary life as a Eurasian women in pre-Communist China, her pioneering role as one of Hong Kong’s first female reporters, and her survival of family abandonment and tragedy.

Nevertheless, photos from Hutcheon’ formative years, covering events like the handover of Hong Kong or the funeral of Yasser Arafat, are a tantalising insight into the breadth and bravery she has displayed across her career. This deserves to be more than a sidebar. Perhaps, with time, Hutcheon will find a way to tell her story.

Black Brass, ★★★½
Belvoir St Theatre, January 8
Reviewed by Harriet Cunningham

The musicians have gone home, leaving a recording studio littered with empty bottles and pizza boxes. The cleaner arrives. He’s stressed. The place is a mess. The alarm code has been changed and goes off, forcing him to call his boss in the middle of the night. He’s keeping things – ugly things from his past, which no one should know – from his girlfriend, and she’s hurt. And he has an interview with immigration tomorrow.

Black Brass celebrates the complexities of being a migrant in a foreign country.Credit:Christophe Canato

Then he hears the quiet noodling of a musician on the other side of the studio window. There’s someone there, playing the guitar, in the middle of the night; music he recognises, music that brings back memories.

Black Brass is set in the nowhere land of the night shift, where quiet, invisible people without a past tidy up after the loud people of the day. Writer and performer Mararo Wangai has collected stories from the quiet people of Perth’s Zimbabwean, Sudanese, South African, Central Congo, Mauritius, Nigerian, Congolese and Kenyan communities and given them a voice, through the character of the cleaner.

Meanwhile, composer and performer Mahamudo Selimane makes these voices sing and dance in what becomes exquisite meditation on music and memory and migration.

Mararo Wangai (left) with musician Mahamudo Selimane, the creative team behind Black Brass.Credit:Trevor Collens

Much of the cleaner’s story is beyond words. Selimane’s character communicates only in music and gesture, and all Wangai’s dialogue, whether he’s talking on the phone to his girlfriend or swearing at the musicians who left such a mess, goes unanswered. Far from being frustrating, the silences draw us in, inviting us to imagine and to listen.

Integral to the story is the set (designed by Zoe Atkinson), built on a single revolve which takes us from one side of the studio window to the other, sometimes at speed.

Selimane mostly stays planted by his array of guitars, but Wangai moves constantly as his world spins, walking steadily just to stay still. It’s an impressive performance, especially when, mid-sentence, he leaps into an ecstatic harmonisation to Selimane’s melody, or breaks into a dance to the irresistible riffs and rhythms.

Intrinsic to the show is the transformation of the theatre foyer into a crowded African night market, complete with coffee stands and craft displays. These days of omicron robbed the first night of Black Brass of some of its immersive community experience, but could not steal its joy.

Set Piece, ★★★★½|
Carriageworks, January 6
Reviewed by Cassie Tongue

Imagine if someone observed your dinner parties. Imagine someone, unswayed by the loose-boned warmth of generously poured drinks and drugs, recording everything.

Someone capturing you rolling your eyes at an inane comment or locking eyes for a beat too long with another guest. Someone noticing when you spill wine on your shirt.

The fantasy projection set of Set Piece.

Imagine if the fantasy projection of yourself and your friends and partners collided with the ordinary, repeatedly, and made it extraordinary. Nat Randall and Anna Breckon’s Set Piece, with its watchful live camera feeds and finely constructed looping structure, does exactly that.

Directed by Breckon and staged at Carriageworks as part of Sydney Festival, it focuses on intergenerational lesbian relationships, connections and fissures. Its script and live-camera feed plays with performed and unconscious ritual informed by queer pop culture, filmic techniques and insights.

It also has uncomfortably keen observation skills: part of the script, by Breckon and Randall in collaboration with Andrew Brophy, was developed through improvisation and drawn from real-life parties.

The show’s four guests are played by Randall, Anni Finsterer, Dina Panozzo, and Carly Sheppard

The four guests – played by Randall, Anni Finsterer, Dina Panozzo, and Carly Sheppard – roam through an apartment full of plush places to land. An older, more established couple plays knowing host to younger guests. There is seduction. There is conflict. There is ennui and Aldi cheese and “have you ever read any Anne Carson?” Sex is offered, dissected, discussed. The distance between longing and action is carefully recorded. It’s witty and vulnerable and ironic and bold.

Everything is so alive it tingles, and it is constructed with our viewership in mind – moments re-examined and re-lit, camera gaze sharing secrets and positioning us as conspirator or interloper from moment to moment.

Music matters here, and between composition (by Nina Buchanan) and painfully perfect chosen snippets, they provide the party’s pulse. When Love and Affection

– a lesbian standard by Joan Armatrading – plays, everyone feels it in their bodies. It is glorious.

Set Piece is wonderfully and painfully intimate. It gets under your skin. Still, opening night was plagued with concerns: a technical glitch interrupted the live feed, attending events in the time of escalating COVID cases can be fraught with anxiety, and Randall and Breckon have publicly stated their concerns about Sydney Festival’s association with the Israeli Embassy. In the spirit of the work, it feels important to notice all these factors and feel their impact on our experience. We bring everything we feel to a party, after all.

Dance

Mirage, ★★½
Campbelltown Arts Centre, January 7
Reviewed by Jill Sykes

Martin del Amo and Miranda Wheen are dancers whose work I have seen and admired for years. But Mirage, a creative and performing collaboration between the two of them, is hard to recommend.

It is obviously a product of much thought and careful preparation, with a pianist and string quartet playing live. So it is a major venture – all the more so because it has withdrawn from the Sydney Festival in protest against Israeli funding for Decadance and continued as an independent production backed by Campbelltown Arts Centre.

Martin del Amo performing in Mirage at Campbeltown Art Centre.Credit:Heidrun Lohr

Del Amo has written about his concept for the piece as “capturing a world that oscillates between expectations and unpredictability” … where boundaries are “blurred and renegotiated between memory and dreams, fantasy and illusion, what was and what is going to be”.

But it is hard to picture any of this in 75 minutes of slow, expressionless action, mostly walking in circles and squares. There was a moment when Wheen had a skip in her step, and even ran briefly, a reminder of what a beautiful mover she is. And another moment when an expression flickered over her face as she reached out.

Otherwise, nothing communicative in what is essentially a shared solo, each of them performing separately in turn until almost the end – but even then without communicating.

Their slow movement has occasional nuances of rhythm and gesture, but lacks the drive of post-modern minimalisation or the thought-driven intensity of Japan’s butoh, two dance styles that tend to pull back
on action and pace.

The spare movement reflects the music, American composer Morton Feldman’s Piano and String Quartet, a work in which one note seems to be searching for the next: extremely slow and unchanging in mood though diligently and delicately played by Sonya Lifschitz and the Enigma Quartet.

The two dancers are identically dressed and will swap their solo sequences in different performances. Although their actions may look simple, it takes great control to move so little, stop, hold a pose, start again smoothly. And what they do, they do well. But why?

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