No Plain Jane

Theatre reviews and musings (mostly) from Adelaide

Tag: Timothy Sexton

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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Ode To Nonsense blog two: in the rehearsal room

On a Wednesday morning, the third day of Ode To Nonsense rehearsals, I enter the rehearsal room for the first time. I received a message from director Andy Packer the night before, telling me he was looking forward to having me in the room, but just so I was aware, the repetiteur – the rehearsal pianist – won’t be there that day due to unexpected family circumstances.

A rehearsal room for an opera without a pianist. It’s perhaps not the most auspicious start for me in observing the process.

But on the rehearsals must go, and so I sit at a table at the back of the room – covered with books about Lear, collections of his nonsense and his paintings – with notebook and pen, ready to watch and learn. Without the use of the piano, the company focuses on the small sections of unsung text from Jane Goldney’s libretto. Perhaps never more than a dozen or so lines, the space without the piano is giving Andy and the cast the space to focus in on these sections: on intent, tone, and character.

Working with the three principles – Nicholas Lester as Lear, Johanna Allen as Gussie, and Adam Goodburn as Giorgio – Andy constantly asks questions: “I wonder if …”, “There could be … ” “Perhaps …” The process feels like a constant conversation between him and the performers, his suggestions through words, their suggestions back through performance. As he explains things, he tells the cast he is using this time to develop a shorthand language with them, so when they’re in the theatre it will only take a few words to remind them the ideas they found in the rehearsal room.

I get a kick out of watching Stage Manager Stephanie Fisher and ASM Marie Docking take reference photographs of the prop arrangements with their iPhones – the future is now – but then problem solve in delightfully low tech ways. A letterbox is mocked up from an old box and some paperclips. When the letters won’t stay put, a bit of gaffa tape over the front solves that.

I feel somewhat awkward sitting in the back of the room, not quite sure of my place or what I’m doing or if anything I scribble down in my notebook makes sense. But everyone in the room is endlessly welcoming. During lunch, the cast sit and talk about operas – particularly contemporary performers, composers, and directors – and when I’m back at my table I write down a list to go home and listen to. Listening to passionate people talk makes me want to find out more, in a way I hadn’t been interested in before. I end up downloading Damon Albarn’s Dr Dee at the suggestion of Andy, and then find myself singing the songs. Completely unexpected.

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