24 March 2015

Young and Jackson

Charlie Cousins, Sam Duncan, Jacob Machin, Gabrielle Scawthorn
45 Downstairs
21 March 2015

At first it was difficult to know who was the more attractive woman: Gabrielle Scawthorn (as Lorna or “Lorn” a nickname that inspired awful puns about grass) in black market nylons and scent or Charlie Cousins sporting magnificent boobs. After a few seconds Gabrielle’s magnificent red hair won hands down and not just because it took that time to realise that five o’clock shadow was just visible under Cousins’ make-up.

But Y & J was not about cross-dressing, although that fleshed out an interesting character. It was about the pointlessness, gut-wrenching horror of war and its universal ability to destroy men’s minds as well as their bodies.

It's late 1945. Two sailors who are about to get their orders are on weekend leave from Flinders Naval Base. The rules that specify they are too junior to take a room at Y & Js are a challenge to be taken on and so are the Yanks that steal their women – in this play, both successfully.

The boys – they are about 17 –  avoid any consideration of the war against the Japs still raging up north with classic Aussie wit. Don Reid built the rapid fire dialogue into rehearsals for concert party skits (‘men only’) that rationalised the camp sexual innuendo and awful puns. It’s difficult stuff to write credibly but Reid did it superbly. Its delivery depended on split-second timing but Cousins (as Keith) and Machin (as the dim-witted Jimmy) made it seem effortless and therefore unrehearsed.

The script was inspired by real men and real locations and events that could easily have been. It’s a sort of historical fiction – or is it fictional history? Les (Sam Duncan) is best in hospital getting treatment for “shell shock” – now PSTD – where the byplay with a pineapple (you don’t take flowers to a bloke) is beautifully written and precisely acted. But Aussie blokes don’t talk about themselves and certainly they don’t do meaningful confessions about how they feel when they have failed to cope (as their mates in battle appear to have) and appear weak (and therefore unmanly). That awkward scene might have been better built on laconic insults where Keith effectively, but not directly, tells his best mate Les that he understands what’s going on in Les’s head. Later, the erotic content (Keith knows ménage à trois) works well by reminiscence and allusion. Les’s PTSD might have been better handled the same way.

Chloe’s costume by Michael Hili, design & artwork by Miranda Costa.

Setting the audience in Young and Jacksons’ main bar worked superbly. Setting Room 24 – with its two iron beds – on one side and the hospital room on the other and the bar with Chloe (left tit damaged by a brutish Yank and patched by a sensitive barman) at one end was entirely credible. So were the minimal sets – one wonky backdrop and a few well-chosen props.

Y & J is an important story. It records Australian history. It records Australian culture. It records what war did and is still doing to young Australian men except that in 2015, the Australian army does not treat many of them. It just chucks them out.

13 March 2015

Symphonic Requiem for the child victims of war

Shane Chen violin
Stanley Dodds conductor
ANAM Orchestra
South Melbourne Town Hall
Saturday 28 February 2015

‘Wilfred Lehmann's Symphonic Requiem for the child victims of war,’ says Paul Dean, Director of the Australian National Academy of Music, ‘is one of the most extraordinary pieces of Australian music you will ever hear, and yet it has been played only once since it was written in 1994.’

The piece is described (accurately, I think) as “a devastating work for violin and orchestra voicing his (Wilfred Lehmann’s) outrage at the obscenities suffered by children at the hands of warring adults.’*

Did the ANAM orchestra with Stanley Dodds find that outrage? 
Most certainly – with the intensity that we’ve come to expect from an ANAM band.

Did Shane Chen find it? 
Absolutely – with the intelligence and musical sensibility that is becoming his trade-mark.

Shane’s problem was how to find that devastation out front on his violin because it was certainly written into Wilfred Lehmann’s score and played out behind him.

‘Important for me, as I prepared the piece,' he said, 'was the innocence of the childish character in the second movement (played on the mandolin). That’s more important than the anger. The anger is due to man-made circumstances but the beauty throughout the whole piece, that continued to the very end, was that Mr Lehmann shows the children having the final say. I firmly believe that the spirit of the piece is that they are going to a better place.’

The piece started with the drums of war – the snare drum – and that was picked up by the solo violin almost immediately in the opening bars.

Shane agreed, ’It’s the panicking in the chaos. It is portrayed in the opening.  It’s the middle of the night. You can hear a noise  – a possum? – then all of a sudden the drum beat, the terror during the night-time.’

He had other problems sitting in his head as well as the intellectual-musical. He had his fellow students of three years ago behind him, he had Paul Dean, Head of ANAM and clarinettist in QSO for the concerto’s first and only performance in 1994 in front of him and he had Lehmann himself in the fifth row. Pressure!

Chen had thought hard about accepting the gig. He thought the piece was ‘epic, huge and technically very difficult. It’s very difficult’, he said, ‘like Ysaÿe (the Ysaÿe sonata for solo violin, his 2011 end-of-year recital). The Symphonic Requiem is very difficult, but playable. It’s written by a great violinist, Wilfred Lehmann and he knows what works, what doesn’t work. The process of learning it s difficult but once you get it under your finger it’s very comfortable and very expressive.