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Jonathan Bree’s surreal performance leaves a lasting mark

Artist Jonathan Bree on stage at Sydney Festival 2019
Photograph: Victor Frankowski

Staring into the eyes of a singer whose entire face is covered by a white mask is a disturbing experience. New Zealand singer-songwriter Jonathan Bree is standing centre stage at the Magic Mirrors Spiegeltent in Hyde Park – he’s flanked by two dancers dressed head to toe in white, plus a drummer and a bassist, all wearing white masks and gloves. No inch of skin on show. Bree, microphone in hand and arms crossed, is staring at the crowd. It’s a staring game he plays, and wins, several times over.

Bree is wearing high-waisted pants, suspenders, a grandad shirt and white boots, like he does in his black-and-white video clip for ‘Fuck It’, which is projected on a screen behind his band. His dancers (one markedly more familiar with the routines than the other) are dressed in the same prairie style – bonnet, frilled tops and Victorian lace-up boots – all white and wearing blonde wigs over their spandex masks. It’s a mesmerising look.

Jonathan Bree on stage with his dancers and band at Sydney Festival

Photograph: Victor Frankowski

The dancers and band (who must all have limited vision through the full face get-up) mimic the dances we see on screen. For ‘Fuck It’, there’s aerobic marching movements, for ‘Valentine’ it’s more like a vintage mime with the mannequin-like dancers performing “kiss” with the gesture of blowing kisses.

Bree’s surreal and filmic approach to the performance is exactly what you’d expect from the Auckland-based musician who achieved wider fame following the success of his self-directed video for ‘You’re So Cool’, which was voted Best Music Video 2017 by Time Out New York. Like the lyrics to his haunting, ’60s-inspired indie-pop, there’s a lot of wit and a lot of dark, depressing qualities to the stage performance. ‘Say You Love Me Too’ (which usually features Catalan singer Clara Viñals) is almost stalkerish in its chorus. During its live rendition one of Bree’s dancers holds a microphone to her mouth with robotic, lifeless movement.

Bree’s stage presence reminds us of Jarvis Cocker, but with a synthetic mop of black hair like he’s a forgotten member of the Beatles. We want to sway and bop along to the sugar-coated sounds of songs like ‘Valentine’ like we’re in the Swinging Sixties, but there’s only one woman dancing at this mostly seated gig – and though the beat is poppy on the surface the lyrics remind us of the bleak and depressing story it’s telling – “You’re worthy of one just as wrong, who is as dismal.”

Jonathan Bree on stage at Sydney Festival 2019

Photograph: Victor Frankowski

Most of the songs are from Bree’s third solo album Sleepwalking, which has brought him more international fans. It’s a shame his Sydney Festival show is a one-off, and wasn’t sold out, as we think the impact of his show will linger with those who experienced it. If you’re unfamiliar with his work, catch up. If you’re heading to Mona Foma this weekend, make sure you catch Jonathan Bree’s show tomorrow night.

Still haven't seen anything at Sydney Festival? Read our reviews and catch a show this weekend.

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