The Rise and Fall of Saint George review

Music
Recommended
4 out of 5 stars
The Rise and Fall of Saint George Midsumma Arts Centre Melbourne 2020 supplied
Photograph: Peter Rubie

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

Paul Mac and Lachlan Philpott pay tribute to a musical legend in this unusually beautiful oratorio

Electronica musician and composer Paul Mac has teamed up with playwright Lachlan Philpott to produce a rare work of communal catharsis, a memorial not so much to a gay celebrity but to a social movement that tore great wounds in the LGBTQIA community just over two years ago. The Rise and Fall of Saint George is a great oratorio on the marriage equality debate, and a reminder of just how tough things got in the battle for recognition.

Saint George, in this context, refers not to singer George Michael, the “patron saint of parks after dark”, but to a mural of the singer that Mac commissioned from artist Scottie Marsh. Painted on the wall of Mac’s home, and fully visible from the train line that passed his house, the mural took on a significance beyond its remit as the country “debated” the question of marriage rights. It became something of a beacon of love and solidarity, until it was defaced and ultimately destroyed by right-wing groups as revenge for the “yes” result.

The mural was a cheeky and subversive thing of beauty, depicting Michael as a saint of queer culture, a joint in one hand and a bottle of amyl in the other, his halo and vestments rainbow coloured. It followed a tradition in the gay community of appropriating religious iconography for political purposes – think Jean Genet or the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. It was only mildly provocative, but of course winning the marriage debate was a far more powerful provocation, and Saint George became a symbol of the backlash.

As subject matter for an oratorio, which typically focuses on the sacred, it couldn’t be more appropriate. And Mac and Philpott rise magnificently to the challenge of distilling this historic moment into a work of musical and textual complexity. With a huge choir made up of the shOUT Youth Chorus (which includes members of the Gay and Lesbian Chorus, Just Holler and Newlands choirs), and featuring guest artists such as Brendan Maclean, Ngaiire, Joyride and Jacqui Dark, the work manages to reach a level of emotional transcendence without appearing lofty or pretentious.

Mac’s sampling work fits neatly with Philpott’s fragmentary approach to text, and the effect is polyphonous and multi-layered. We get a sense of the swelling pride and community spirit as it builds and spills over into success, but we also get the voices of hatred and resentment. Samples of Magda Szubanski and Penny Wong stand nobly against the mealy-mouthed equivocations of Tony Abbott. And one telling section deals with the supporters of the vandals, who vow to “stand behind Ben” as he spews his religious intolerance.

Technically, the work is expertly conceived and brilliantly delivered. Director Kate Champion takes a clear and unfussy approach to the material, drawing on the traditions of oratorio while injecting the work with some contemporary sass. The sound engineering by Zac Ruokari means that nothing is lost, whether it be spoken word or complex phonic layering, and Verity Hampson’s lighting is joyous and vibrant. And above it all, Saint George smiles beatifically. 

Musically and lyrically, this feels like a flexing of new muscles for Mac and Philpott, and makes us long for an original opera from the duo. Simple phrases on rising scales build that sense of communal power, but then swirling cacophonies and snatches of speech suggest darker and more complex undercurrents. There is no overt nod to Michael’s musical output until the very end, when the phrase “you gotta have faith” is repeated by Marcus Whale until it is taken up by all the singers and becomes “we gotta have faith”. It’s thrilling.

Overall, as painful and as triggering as some of it is, The Rise and Fall of Saint George is a beautiful testament to the courage and resilience of LGBTQIA people, and a warm celebration of the hetero communities who stood behind us. Scottie Marsh’s mural still stands covered in black paint, but individuals have since vandalised the vandals and written messages of love and resistance. “No to hate”, and “Love will win” now adorn the work, in a palimpsest of this country’s ongoing battle between freedom and doctrine, between good and evil.

By: Tim Byrne

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