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a strange gift

keith gallasch: wharf2loud's manna


COMPOSER, SOUND DESIGNER AND DIRECTOR MAX LYANDVERT AND POET AND LYRICIST DAN SPIELMAN HAVE COMBINED TO PRODUCE MANNA FOR THE SYDNEY THEATRE COMPANY'S ADVENTUROUS WHARF2LOUD PROGRAM. THEY DESCRIBE THE WORK AS "A SONG CYCLE AND EARPLAY." APTLY THERE IS SOMETHING OF THE PADDED CELL AND THE SOUND CHAMBER IN MANNA, THE STAGE WALLS LINED WITH UPRIGHT MATTRESS-LIKE PADDING AS FIVE PERFORMERS ADDRESS US DIRECTLY IN RECITATIONS AND SONGS OF SEPARATION AND LOSS.

This is a dream-like world of floating signifiers gesturing at a barely tangible signified—the expression of grief bordering on despair. Appropriately the performers play out a collective state of being rather than characters. At one moment they appear like a family, stiffly gathered for a group portrait around a kamanche (Persian bowed lute) player, at others individuals intone laments distantly evocative of the horrors of World War II, the Holocaust, Bosnia and Kossovo, but, save for a passing mention of Chechnya, none is specified. Love and family have been forever lost by unnamed people to unnamed wars in unnamed places.

This attempt at universality, or even a metaphysical dimension (inherent in the work's title), is a brave but risky one requiring an extra alert listening from the audience and not a little guess work as Spielman's poetic text offers images ("a night of great fires", "she tried to burn the body before they came") that are often suggestive of but never quite add up to straightforward tellings. That's not a bad thing in itself, but the overall lack of specificity makes it difficult to anchor the world of Manna as it moves on image to image. It's as if the work is unearthed, a constellation of potent charges waiting for the moment of promise, a lightning strike that will never come.

Certainly Manna's weighty themes are performed with emotional intensity, Boris Brkic and Gertrud Ingeborg bringing to them a particularly affecting, quiet gravity. The visual imagery has its moments of strength, and weakness—including a large mirror wheeled briskly across the stage without attention to effect or meaning. Some images resonate effectively with each other, a mock operation and a later pieta play on our sense of the sheer vulnerability of the body and our growing separation from the dead. Others, like a man stripped to the waist with some device attached to his chest, appear potent—in the manner of the creations of Romeo Castellucci—but remain obscure.

Not surprisingly in a work described as an "earplay", sonic imagery plays a key role. From the middle of the front row, facing his performers, Max Lyandvert mixes and modulates a score that ranges from engaging, supple ambiences that heighten the sense of dream and underlying anxiety to huge waves of nightmarish sound (evocative of war and other catastrophes, but again not literally) that regularly punctuate the action and drive all else to stillness. But sound is also part of the physical performance, realised on violin, piano, a piano string frame and classical Persian lute, hammered dulcimer and drum by the performers. The music in Manna is cross-cultural, the voices bear different accents. Then there are assorted uses of the gravel tray once commonly found in radio studios, here, for example, used by one performer to create the trudging of another, quite still, lamenting. The mock operation is like a children's game—vegetables and fruit squished, crunched and grated before us. Again, the real evaporates into shadow forms, into art and play—our means of facing, and evading, the real.

Early in Manna, Spielman's poems bewail the loss of loved ones but equally recognise our deep entwining as couples ("your voice inside my voice"), and thus how the lost ones stay with us. But later, in lines about touch, he expresses the very tentativeness of connection ("perhaps I touch you with my voice"), existential anxiety seeming to grow as the performance moves on to its final image of 'putting someone to rest.'

For Max Lyandvert, in his program note, the biblical manna is a metaphor for the hardships the Israelites endured coming out of Egypt ("they HAD to have their journey"), its nourishment symbolising their spiritual readiness for receiving God's ten commandments. Likewise, if without a conventional theatrical trajectory, the figures in Manna collectively go on their journey, struggling with suffering. Lyandvert posits that "through grieving and the existential consciousness of loss...Man arrives at the act of burial, to honour the dead." And so does Manna.

Manna is an odd concoction, part contemporary performance, if too actorly and visually uneven, part recitation (some of the poems might have fared better on the page), and part sound event—a sometimes fascinating interplay of voices, acoustic and miked, musical instruments (most potently, Jamal Rekabi vocally and on the Iranian kamanche, santore and daef), live sound effects and digital soundscapes that constantly mutate our shared aural environment. Moments when these discrete elements bounce off each other like charged atoms or merge into striking images suggest the potential for Manna to be at once ethereal and earthed. But there's work to do to bring it down to us from the heavens.


Wharf 2Loud, Manna, lyrics, text Dan Spielman, director, composer, sound designer Max Lyandvert, performers Boris Brkic, Gertraud Ingeborg, Dana Miltins, Jamal Rekabi, Jayne Tuttle, visual artists Kate Davis, Marisa Purvell, lighting Emma Valente, Wharf 2, Sydney Theatre Company, Sydney, from July 1

RealTime issue #86 Aug-Sept 2008 pg. web

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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