No Plain Jane

Theatre reviews and musings (mostly) from Adelaide

Tag: Her Majestys Theatre

Review: Ode To Nonsense

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.

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Review: Namatjira

Watercolour landscape artist Albert Namatjira (1902 – 1959) leant how to paint under the tutelage of white Australian Rex Battarbee, who exhibited paintings at the Hermannsburg Lutheran Mission where Namatjira was born and raised. Namatjira’s paintings raised in value from being essentially worthless, to commanding hundreds of guineas; his work was famous globally; he became the major support for over 600 family members; he was the first Indigenous Australian to be granted citizenship – so he could be taxed on his income, but he was still refused the vote.

The story of his life is brought to the stage by Big hART, a Tasmanian based company which works in art and social change. Their work is predicated on embedding themselves into communities, to work with people on the issues that face their lives, to create art, share stories, and leave a lasting impact.

Starting performances with Company B (now Belvoir) in 2010 and now on a national tour, the work was developed with the permission and discussions with Namatjira’s decedents, and is part of a broader project which encompasses a watercolour exhibition, community development in the Western Aranda communities, and workshops in Central Australian schools in digital literacy and filmmaking, to just touch on a few aspects of the project. More can be discovered on the show’s website.

After seeing the work, the remarkable thing about the play, and the thing I feel least equipped to write about is how Scott Rankin’s script and Trevor Jamieson’s easy delivery in the lead performance tell Namatjira’s story with an air of easy irreverence.  I say “an air” because the work isn’t actually irreverent at all, it tells a story with some very sombre moments with respect; and yet the work is embedded with a light heart, a joy in its step, and is proud to carry the glint of a tear and sadness in its eye.

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