Fringe Review: Chants des Catacombes

by Jane

You often find in shows in the fringe design becomes the least rigorous element. Tight deadlines, tight bump-in/out schedules, tight budgets: it makes sense that the focus on design might be lost.  The focus is on the central element: the text, the choreography, the music. Design is often simple, perhaps a few key items picked immaculately.

Chants des Catacombes bucks this trend completely. In the Old Adelaide Gaol (at the end of a poorly lit, poorly sign-posted road) for the Adelaide Fringe, the design is stunning.

We’re invited to walk into the space in small groups, and under the starry night air we walk between high, sheer walls of stone, the path marked with flickering candle light.  We are released into a large, grassed courtyard, where we can just make out the silhouettes of our fellow travelers. As someone lightly plays away at the discordant piano, we sit talking with each other around candles in jars.

It is inside the production proper and inside the gaol that the design elements truly astound. The work isn’t set in a gaol (at least not explicitly – more about narrative elements later), but it beautifully exploits elements that are unique to the environment: doored halls, the central stairwell, the grating.

In these stone halls, a candelabra hangs, a red curtain drops, out are pulled a harp and a chaise lounge, white flakes float gently down into the space. In another room, a small stage is framed with footlights; in the third a woman writhes on a lonely hospital bed.

The lighting design (with the exception of a fluorescent bulb which angrily glares at our eyes after we have adjusted to the soft glow of incandescence) highlights the space and the performance and truly elevates the physical design properties. From a dreary half-light, to pitch darkness, to a shaft of light moving across the performance space and up a wall, the precision that has been entered into the lighting is incredible.

The live music and our three singing performers is largely unamplified, and the Gaol provides wonderful acoustics and reverberations, strengthening the impact and resonance of the music.  The encompassing sound which results from the strength of the performers and the support of the stone walls, helps to draw the audience into the space.

The strength in the design becomes all the more remarkable when you consider the Melbourne based artists were in the Goal less than a week before performances began.

Unfortunately, the rigor which is achieved in the design is not achieved in the wider performance narrative.  Before we moved from the courtyard to inside the Gaol buildings, company Artistic Director Bryce Ives explained the nature of promenade theatre, inviting us to move around the space as we felt drawn to.  Inside the space, however, there was less room to be self-determined than implied, and the position or the role of the audience in relationship to the characters was never truly explained.

The characters, too, were never completely explained, and I left not knowing how much the piece worked from a narrative, or if the work was disparate strands building into a sensory experience. I get the impression from the program that there was a through story: I don’t know where it was, but I was never there with it. Every now and then there was a reference to a previous scene or situation and I would be caught off guard, trying to piece together relationships.

The work needs to become as rigorous in its narrative as it is in its design – or else remove all hints of a narrative all-together. To become more rigorous isn’t to say it needs to throw away cabaret elements, but we need to understand the characters and the situations, and the work needs a strong guiding hand to make sure this happens.

Other moments threw me off guard, too. Chants des Catacombes is set an unlocalised, unspecified location, and yet we hear a French accent, and in the next room a British accent. Were these accents necessary for the work?

Something that I loved in the work was the strength in the female characters and the femininity of the piece, but the work also seemed unsure if this was to be matter of fact – women created this piece, of course it features women and women’s stories – or a wider commentary on women in society and literature.

On a baseline level, I had issues with Desdemona being the singular example of representation of women as weak. There are so many more interesting things to say about chronic representation of women in literature and society, than one ultra-specific, 400-year-old reference that relies on more than a working knowledge of Shakespeare and ignores much of his work. What about Viola? Cordelia? Portia? Katherina?

Without a clear narrative or through-line (and with an 11:30pm performance slot) the work also feels longer than it actually is.  The lack of an ability to measure were we are as an audience in the piece makes sections drag slightly too long, which is a pity in the face of the wonder of the space.

Production company Present Tense seem committed to this work, its development, and further presentations.  At this point, the creative team needs to strengthen a narrative to guide the audience through the work; or remove these strands away and concentrate on the work as an experience. As a piece of visual art, Chants des Catacombes excels; I would love to see it reach this point as performance art, too.

Present Tense presents Chants des Catacombes. Collaboratively created by Nicola Andrews, Anna Boulic, Laura Burzacott, Lisette Drew, Nathan Gilkes, David Harford, Bryce Ives, Zoe McDonald, Sophie Woodward, with guest artists The Twonks. At the Old Adelaide Gaol for the Adelaide Fringe, until 29/02/2012. More information and tickets.