The New Zealand Festival in Wellington and the Auckland Arts Festival have presented some extraordinary examples of theatre, dance, visual arts and music over the past few weeks. These include The Barbershop Chronicles and The Select in Wellington, Akram Khan’s Giselle and 1984 in Auckland as well as Orpheus and The Piano, which were presented at both festivals.
This last week has seen two major musical performances featuring the work of Max Richter, including his immersive eight-hour long work Sleep. He also appeared with the Auckland Philharmonia to present two shorter works – “Vivaldi Recomposed” and “Three Worlds: Music from Woolf Works”
His “Vivaldi Recomposed” is an attempt to take a contemporary approach to Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” to marry the themes of the original work with a minimalist approach using a soloist, the orchestra and electronic synthesiser.
The performance looked as though it were led by the remarkable violinist Mari Samuelson, who gave an electrifying performance. With each movement she began with the original Vivaldi and taking on a Nigel Kennedy-like flamboyance as she engaged with the orchestra and Richter.
The electronic sounds wove an elaborate cloak around the almost mathematical qualities of the original throughout the work. Richter seemed to have extracted the minimalist qualities of the original and through new phasing and looping created a parallel version giving each of the seasons a new intense life.
These repeated asymmetrical patterns created a scintillating energy between the various strands of the music.
Richter, who has previously used literary sources such as Kafka in his compositions was inspired by the novels of Virginia Woolf to create Three Worlds: Music from Woolf Work, the second work on the programme.
The three movements were linked to; Mrs Dalloway, Orlando and The Waves, with the composer including Woolf herself speaking about language and memory, then Sarah Sutcliffe reading, Memory is the Seamstress while Gillian Anderson intoned Woolf’s suicide note to her husband.
The music for all three movements had a sensuous quality that seemed to reflect on the notions of memory and a search for meanings.
The almost sci-fi nature of “Orlando” was accompanied by extra-terrestrial sounds that flitted between the more conventional melodies
Parts of the “The Waves” featured music that gave the sensation of pulsing waves of energy. The final part of “The Waves” featured the soprano Grace Davidson whose voice dipped and soared with an intense emotion. At times the voice seemed to be one of the instruments as it held long intense notes; at other times it felt as though she were singing a requiem for the author.
Richter provided an intriguing performance as he moved between electronic keyboard, grand piano, upright piano and electronic inputs.
This work could have been even better given its numerous connections with ideas and narrative lines but it seemed to lose its way and the emotional intensity of the work kept flagging and many of the sequences appeared to be merely repetitive, resulting in a lack of energy and progression.
Another problem with the performance was the quality of the audio, with Richter and his sound engineers taking the work into aural overload, blurring the nuances and subtlety of the music.
Swan Lake, Loch na heala
Last week the New Zealand Festival featured an Irish take on Swan Lake conceived by Michael Keegan-Dolan and subtitled Loch na heala, which translates as Loch of Love.
Michael Keegan-Dolan, who is the writer, choreographer and director of the work, created a tale which had some references to the ballet with a few birds, a prince of sorts and a big black plastic lake but it owed much more to Irish folk history and mythology. We were plunged into interwoven events that envelop the audience in a strange and brutal landscape.
The work opened with an almost naked man (Mikel Murfi) tied with a noose around his neck to a rock, bleating like a sacrificial lamb, an Irish version of Prometheus chained to a rock for his transgressions. The figure soon morphed into The Holy Man (replacing Rotman of the original ballet), who abuses a young girl. Finola (Rachel Poirier) and then she and her three sisters disappear to return as swan spirits
The Prince was the mentally unwell Jimmy (Alex Leonhartsberger), who is ultimately killed by the local mayor (also Mikel Murfi), who has moved on from his Holy Man role.
The work manages to combine what feels like an Irish folktale of good and evil spirits and combined this with a more contemporary tale of abusive priests, corrupt officials and incompetent police.
But a lot of the time the action seemed like an out-of-control Irish party with outrageous behaviour, cross-dressing, riotous Irish dancing (but not Michael Flatley style) and some raucous stories and jokes. It was an immersive work of energy, laughter and magnificent set pieces.
Adding to the surreal quality of the action was the set (by Sabine Dargent), which was minimal with a few props, including three quite tall ladders for the swans to perch on and a few concrete blocks for Jimmy to perch on.
Then there is a small group of musicians/singers providing a musical backdrop, a mixture of nostalgia and strong emotional sounds.
Last week the Auckland Arts Festival presented Tea, written and directed by Ahi Karunaharan. It spanned a hundred years, telling the intergenerational tale of a Sri Lankan family and their connections with tea and the tea plantations of that country.
It also provided a brief history of tea, colonialism and the social and political changes and revolutions that have formed the contemporary state.
Karunaharan noted in the programme that at the heart of Tea is the "struggle of the spirit against oppression – of class, gender and race where the stirrings for independence begin.”
Much of the story centred on the tea workers controlled by an almost medieval system of indentured labour, oppressed by the owner class, and suffering from poverty and lack of opportunities.
This issue was highlighted by the personal and social conflicts between two brothers, Ravi (Mel Odedra) and Bala (Mayen Mehta), one a manager, the other still a lowly worker. Their differences were made apparent in their speech and clothing, one attired in a formal, European suit, the other in traditional dress.
One of the major social issues raised in the play was that of traditional, arranged marriages. Gowri, played with an earnest feminism and sly wit by Anjula Prakash, refuses her arranged marriage and escapes by riding off on her bike in another social breakthrough.
The clever interchanges between Gowri and her cousins Theepa (Kalyani Nagarajan) and Raji (Rina Patel) and her aunt Kamala (Rashmi Pilapitiya) showed the outmoded views of conservative Sri Lankan culture.
Changing attitudes could be seen in various conversations and actions that occur over the following generations as notions of work, freedom and roles changed and adapted.
What made the play successful apart from the accomplished acting was the fine writing of Aki Karunaharan who provided language that clearly outlined the history, was beautifully descriptive and gave a real sense of character to the individuals.
Tiffany Singh's set design and the props designed by Bhavesh Bhuthadia provided a simple backdrop to the action while the costumes of Padma Akukla helped to clearly distinguish the characters.
There are probably few productions in New Zealand that can boast a full cast of South Asian actors and it is gratifying that we have the talent to be able to mount such a production that not only shows the struggles of our immigrant cultures but also the similarities between all our cultures.
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