Song for a Weary Throat is playing a short season at Arts Centre Melbourne as part of Melbourne Festival. Here's our three-star review of its original season at Theatre Works:
It opens with bodies strewn about the set – a ravaged, busted space that simultaneously suggests a blasted heath, a makeshift clearing in the woods and an abandoned skate park – prostrate and unmoving. Suddenly a blinding searchlight is turned on the audience, accompanied by a shattering roar of decibels. Our eyes and ears recover for a couple of seconds of blackout and the lights slowly rise to a new configuration of bodies, grouped together and grasping for the heavens. Then the light and the roar are back, before a new configuration and another blast and another roar. It’s relentless and initially rather powerful but, like much else in this strange work, it goes on too long and loses its effectiveness.
Song for a Weary Throat is a production from Rawcus, an ensemble made up of performers with and without disability that have had a long association with this city, having performed in the Melbourne Festival, at Fringe and Dance Massive. They’ve collaborated before with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and Chamber Made Opera, so they have the kudos to experiment on the audience’s time. Their latest show is a fascinating hybrid of dance, theatre and music, a sophisticated blend of media that combine to produce something curious and arresting. It’s a pity that their editorial and dramaturgical scalpel isn’t sharper, because this is a show full of great ideas that only intermittently comes together.
Song for a Weary Throat is a collaboration with the Invenio Singers, a choral group led by Gian Slater that use extreme improvisational vocal techniques and something they call ‘conceptual composition’ to create shifting soundscapes and aural distortion to accompany the antics on stage. This is either spookily effective or extremely irritating, depending on your taste and inclination. Sound designer and musical director Jethro Woodward, who corrals this noise into something coherent and atmospheric, deserves most of the credit for what works musically; the Invenio Singers merely reflect and magnify what doesn’t.
Director Kate Sulan has created a largely modular show, in the sense that sections and their sequences feel virtually interchangeable. There are many exquisite moments – a performer seeming to conjure a stream of sand from the heavens, a brief recreation of The Raft of the Medusa – and large swathes of the piece that build tension and pace. But given this is largely a self-devised work, more discipline is required to rein in the disparate, contrasting moods; just as things seem to grow or crystallise, something flattens or repeats and the magic is lost. It could be argued that this is a deliberate attempt to evoke the grasping and elusive need for us to create meaning, but the overall effect is a dramatic diminishment of returns.
Despite its flaws, this is still a challenging and engaging work, capable of moments of sheer joy but also sudden twists of violence and brutality. One sequence has a performer collapse in the centre of the stage only to be rescued by a performer on the sidelines; the rescued exits, leaving the rescuer in need of rescue. It is a beautiful evocation of our social vulnerability and longing for empathy. But this sequence concludes with an extraordinary moment, when the final rescued performer turns on her rescuer and shoves her foot in her rescuer’s face. There’s a savagery to the image that lingers disturbingly in the mind.
Song for a Weary Throat is by no means a failure but it’s also not a complete success. Rawcus have an approach to theatrical technique that is rigorous and egalitarian, and their collaboration with the Invenio Singers produces some sublime moments. At its best, it recalls Romeo Castellucci’s Genesi: From the Museum of Sleep, seen in Melbourne in 2002. The problem is that improvisational work is inherently structurally deficient and needs judicial editing and a strict approach to pacing if it’s going to be effective. A performance that was advertised as coming in under an hour went on opening night for an hour and a half. Perhaps if it had gone for that advertised hour it might have been magnificent. If that proves the adage that less is more, it also suggests a company with a powerful future ahead of it.