Review: Ode To Nonsense

by Jane

Slingsby's Ode To Nonsense, photo by Andy Rasheed

Nicholas Lester and cast. Photo by Andy Rasheed.

Previous to seeing and reviewing the show, I spent a significant amount of time with the company in rehearsal. You can read my documentation of that in parts one, two, and three. This experience undoubtedly coloured the way I saw the work, so take from this what you will.

Edward Lear (1812 – 1888) was one of the first writers to create work specifically for the entertainment of children. His nonsense drawings and writings have lived on, endearing themselves to many new generations of children, while his paintings and illustrations of wildlife and landscapes command ongoing respect from a whole different audience. Ode to Nonsense is an ode to the life of Lear, from Adelaide theatre company Slingby, in conjunction with the State Opera of South Australia.

A significant departure for the company, this work moves from the intimate work Slingsby are known for – both in terms of performers and audience – into a production with a cast of eighteen and an audience of 1000.

Walking into the old Her Majesty’s Theatre under a garland of green flags and fairy lights, director Andy Packer and designer Geoff Cobham have created a world that speaks from the same world of their previous works. With much of the usual suspects in the creative team, including Quincy Grant as the composer, visually and aurally the work seems to capture the spirit of Slingsby that has brought the company such acclaim. In Ode to Nonsense though, there is something that doesn’t quite gel, and we are left with a work that is curiously flat.

Lear (Nicholas Lester) has returned to his adopted home of San Remo with his perennial servant Giorgio (Adam Goldburn) to see his love Gussie (Johanna Allen) – not that he could ever admit to that. While Jane Goldney’s libretto has found moments of great heart in these scenes, and moments of joyous frivolity in the embracing of Lear’s nonsense, the gap between these moments is never truly bridged, and so audience members are never truly immersed in either world: Ode to Nonsense never reaches beyond the proscenium.

It’s a work that perhaps is captured in nearly-theres. In exploring the world of Lear and his friends, Goldney’s work alternately suffers from under-exposition, requiring a solid knowledge of Lear’s life and work, then over-exposition with too much stake in explanation placed in a single song. Taken in isolation, Goldney’s scenes under Packer’s careful touch of direction paint insightful snapshots of old friendships, of never embraced romance, of the triumph of embracing worlds and words that cannot be truly grasped or explained. Built up into a narrative, though, neither Goldney nor Packer have solved how to stop the strands unraveling.

The centrepiece of Cobham’s set is a large hedge, which reveals itself as a giant puppet, transforming above the stage, and energy that does ripple out into the auditorium. This transformation, however, happens late into the production, and before this point the large wall of greenery is overwhelming to the playing space.

Grant’s composition has a deft and light touch, the singers lightly skipping over notes in happiness and in grief. Paradoxically, though, when paired with the orchestration the voices aren’t carried out into the auditorium but, rather, a wall seems to be built up from the pit, defeating the voices and leaving them behind.

The three principles give solid performances, in character and in voice: they each have a time to shine in overt presentation to the audience in their solos, and in careful understatement of quiet emotion. The three have an ease of camaraderie, allowing a glance into decades spent together. And still, they feel swallowed.

The work finds itself in some of its lightest moments – in simple transformations of Cobham’s set pieces of suitcases into a train or Lear’s house, in subtle glances between Lester and Allen – and when the work is most built around its youth chorus. Projection by Illuminart brings the most to the production when it is faithfully bringing to life the sketches of Lear. There is something magical in the direct connection between Lear’s pen on paper and the projections that dance across the stage.

There is always something delightfully left of centre here in Ailsa Paterson’s costumes. Lear’s striped spats, Giorgio’s pocket of cutlery; Gussie’s long fur stole creating illusions to a cat; the motley children of a London fair with stars coming out of their bonnets, bow ties, and chiffon collars that could almost be tutus. The costumes of the youth chorus then goes on to explode in the creatures of Lear’s imagination: vests of strips of coloured and patterned material off-set by masks in black and white, changing the children into everything from an elephant to a narwhal to a dong with a luminous nose.

As Ode to Nonsense begins to bid us farewell, the Owl and the Pussycat dance by the light of the moon, just married by the Turkey who lives on the hill. Allen’s clear soprano voice circles above the chorus of young singers and out into Her Majesty’s auditorium. The stage is awash with the grand nonsense of Lear, and the joy of performers young and old. A pea green boat sits before us made out of suitcases; costumes loudly yell as children move with young abandon. Yet, still here something thwarts a true connection.

Leaving us in a true ode to Lear’s nonsense, the joy in these final moments feels the closest to the sharing of the Lear he perhaps would want us to remember. More’s the pity, then, that so much of the show doesn’t extend out to the audience the way Lear’s and Slingsby’s work truly can.

Slingsby and the State Opera of South Australia, in association with the Adelaide Festival Centre, presents Ode to Nonsense, composed by Quincy Grant, libretto by Jane Goldney, scenario by Andy Packer. Directed by Andy Packer, musical direction by Timothy Sexton, set and lighting design by Geoff Cobham, costume design by Ailsa Paterson, projection design by Cindi Drennan/Illuminart, animation by Luku Trembath, choreography by Larissa McGowan. With Nicholas Lester, Johanna Allen, Adam Goodburn, chorus, and members of the Adelaide Art Orchestra. At Her Majesty’s Theatre until May 4. More information and tickets.