Thursday, 13 August 2009

Barrie Kosky's Poppea @ Sydney Opera House



There is a tried and trusted shocking list of luvvy affectations that we are supposed to find challenging when we step within the environs of the theatre. Nudity (especially male), cannibalism, cunnilingus, general ugliness, the aesthetic of the Seventies (yes, they were shocking), Weimar Berlin, the mixture of popular and classical music, lots of fake blood and a bare stage. Barrie Kosky's Poppea has moments of aching beauty but collapses beneath an accretion of portentous stylistic devices.

This Poppea is a translation of Monteverdi's baroque opera from Italian into German, the score is stripped back and orchestrated for three cellos and a piano. In-between the operatic score Kosky has inserted Cole Porter songs, so the show begins with Barbara Spitz as Amor singing 'Love For Sale' in a lascivious growl hammily reminiscent of Marianne Faithful. The stage is set, the goddess of love is set up as being something more like a madame of a Weimar brothel.


The cast is small and pared to the essentials. We have the beehived and basqued Amor, a shambling Tom of Finland Ottone, an older afro fright wigged Ottavia, a heroin chic Nero, a birdlike Drusilla, a naked Seneca and Poppea herself, bedraggled in a gossamer shift dress, red eyed and metal teethed (why she's wearing braces or grilles I'm really not sure). It's all self-consciously ugly and reminds one of the dehumanized aesthetic of Fellini's late visions of Rome.

Kosky's arrangement is jazzy and tango tinged, the cellos can be rhythmic and raw and they underscore some occasionally beautiful vocal performances. Nero in particular is beautifully expressive whilst Ottone is sung pure and clean. The star of the show is Ruth Brauer-Kvam as Drusilla, who is played shifting between taut and neurotic and besotted and tender, often trembling on tiptoes as she sings. The second half opens with the cellists playing a neurotic glissando and with Ottavia outlining her plans for revenge, her cartoonish performance often descends into comedy it reminds us that the most effective moments are played straight.

There are moments when things come together, the death of Seneca, whom Nero convinces to take open his veins in the bath. It's a beautiful moment that segues clunkily into 'Anything Goes'. Moving between the two musical texts is a part of the problem with the piece as a whole. The Porter sings are used to highlight emotional turning points in the story, but they don't so much highlight as type in capitals and multiple explanation marks. The effect is desperately heavy handed and not nearly as clever as it seems to think it is.

Kosky says that he admires Monteverdi's lack of passing judgement on his characters. That's disingenuous. Judgement is passed here. Only Poppea and Nero are afforded the dignity of not being sent-up, the other characters are loaded with so many tics and so much gurning that characterisation turns pantomime in no time at all. Of course Poppea and Nero's amour fou is a staple in pantheon of a certain type of art that stretches from the surrealists to 'Natural Born Killers' and beyond, so it's unsurprising that they merit that kind of treatment. Melita Jurisic's Poppea is a problem of the piece. She appears desperate and ravaged, lank haired and metal mouthed like a junkie madwoman. This is should be a woman men kill for but here love is arbitrary and ugly. If that's a the point that's being made it feels more like trendy high-art nihilism than anything terribly insightful.

So much of Kosky's play is Brecht-lite. The trowelled on distancing effects don't make any didactic point, or even carry much emotional impact, they seem like a child showing off. Childish? Of course. It's no great stretch to think of theatricals as like infants who have learnt to say a naughty word. They shout 'bum' and, perhaps finding it amusing, we chide them, thus playing into their game of attention grabbing. Soon they become less charming, tedious even, and eventually they grow out of it.

Too many directors still want the grown-ups to tell them off. You can tell this because they press the same buttons repeatedly, if they were once shocking they're no longer surprising and that's a shame. Some of Poppea is beautiful, much more often it is embarrassingly predictable and riddled with clich├ęs that are smugly titillating rather then radical.

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