Saturday, August 21, 2010

She Had Immortal Longings

Australian Shakespeare Festival
(A collaboration between Michael Campbell, Helen Noonan, Alison Bauld and William Shakespeare)
Peacock Theatre
August 19 & 21, 2010
By Anica Boulanger-Mashberg

This is an ambitious and challenging work for both performers and audience. It combines dense text (largely, but not exclusively, Shakespearean), a sparse contemporary operatic score, and a relentless live video projection of the action on stage. It also demands an intense engagement with the most emotionally and dramatically extreme points in the lives of five Shakespearean women – moments usually embedded in the full length of a production. It’s a lot to ask in an hour.

But the collaborators have not been put off by these challenges, and neither, therefore, should we. Audiences should celebrate and support such desires to explore the depths of Shakespeare’s text in rich and unexpected ways.

Alison Bauld’s score invites Helen Noonan to employ a broad vocal range and embrace some unconventional moments – such as the eerily childlike, light, clear, almost vibrato-less line ‘what’s done cannot be undone’ near the end of Lady Macbeth’s segment. Noonan and accompanist Arabella Teniswood-Harvey are consummately competent with the music.

A trio of actors in black – Jane Longhurst, Sara Cooper and Iain Lang – haunt Noonan’s stage, providing a semi-Shakespearean narration which snakes its way around the five musical settings of the monologues, offering us a partially-obscured glimpse into this woman’s ‘inner landscape within the theatre of her mind’. Like a Greek chorus, they interrogate her story, over and over, as the work explores the demise of a psyche, the retreat into a world of unreality which becomes more and more unstable.

Michael Campbell admirably knits together the threads of the disparate Shakespearean characters (Portia, Titania, Queen Margaret, Lady Macbeth and Cleopatra), but there remains an inevitable sense of a series of separate ‘scenes’ – transitions between such characters can rarely be logical; though, in part, this is the essence of the narrative, as these characters increasingly inhabit and punish the woman. Some, in their already heightened themes, seem to suit the musical setting more than others – the Lady Macbeth section is a highlight, and Noonan’s musical portrayal of her twisted despair and delusion is more convincing than most I’ve seen in ‘conventional’ interpretations.

The three actors help to smooth the transitions; they remain onstage for the entire performance, taking turns with a small hand-held video camera. The images are projected overhead, alternating with footage of the small play-theatre resting on the piano (with backdrops representing the world of each Shakespearean character, and Noonan and actors manipulating the figures). Mostly, the projection seemed a mere distraction, distancing rather than inviting us in to the woman’s mind. The most moving sections (such as Cleopatra’s farewell to the ‘last warmth of [her] lips’) were carried entirely by the strength of score and performance, and a very honest, human connection between Noonan and the actors; technology could do nothing to enhance that.

I didn’t always understand this work, but theatre does not require absolute comprehension. Instead it should offer glimpses of lives and realities that are not our own, and engage us in both the most familiar and unimaginable of circumstances – love, magic, death, murder, loss, madness... and She Had Immortal Longings definitely achieves this.

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