Cherry, Cherry, By Neda Rahmani and Xan Colman, A is for Atlas, A Dining Room In Thornbury, Season Ended.
A is for Atlas has produced a distinctive body of work since its inception in 2006 under Artistic Director Xan Colman – one of a number of talented theatre folk I studied law with at Melbourne University in the 1990s. (There must’ve been something in the water: other refugees from law school days include Dean Bryant, the musical theatre writer and director, and the Artistic Director of Griffin Theatre Company, Sam Strong.)
Colman’s signature is the elegant fusion of musical and theatrical performance, from the haunting celebration of the Beckett and Shostakovich centenary, I Start Again, to the voyeuristic (and sonic) cruelties in his 2009 production of Heiner Müller’s Quartet.
The latest piece to emerge from the company combines food, storytelling, dance, puppetry, music and song. It’s easily the warmest and most nourishing theatrical dining experience I’ve had, and I’ll cherish the memory for a long time. The irrepressible Alison Croggon has a glowing review on Theatre Notes. I share her enthusiasm.
We’re invited into the home of Neda Rahmani. The percussionist, dancer and singer lives in a loft in Thornbury with her partner Marrs Coiro. She’s a woman of incredible charm and generosity: apparent in her welcoming smile and confirmed in the stories she tells over the course of the evening.
For the most part, they’re deeply intimate stories of her family, dappled with delight and sorrow. Her mother is Mauritian, her father Iranian, and the family fled Iran in the wake of the Revolution.
Neda’s entrancing presence isn’t limited to words: she has a beautiful voice, plays a range of weird and wonderful instruments, treats us to a whirling traditional dance in Mauritian costume, and can even beguile us into imitating her penchant for writing love letters to strangers.
The show reminded me of Derrida’s view on hospitality, which he called “the whole and principle of ethics”. “Hospitality”, he wrote, “is culture itself and not simply one ethic among others.” He said a lot of other quite impenetrable things about hospitality too, but he was right about that. How we treat strangers goes to the core of culture, and it’s the reason why our government’s treatment of refugees is a cause of such lasting national shame.
Cherry, Cherry is suffused with hospitality at every level: as entertainment, as immigration, as trust, forgiveness, as the sharing of home and food … Oh yes, you get a delicious meal. (Really, I must have that prawns in red sauce recipe.) The encounter concludes with wild improvised percussion, performed by everyone present, that will have you walking out into the night invigorated.
I can’t recommend Cherry, Cherry enough. Unfortunately, the season has ended.
Quartet: The Razor, By Heiner Muller, Music by Annie Hsieh, A is for Atlas, J Studios, 100 Barkly St, North Fitzroy, August 12 – 29, 2009.
Felicity Steel and Andrew Gray in Heiner Muller's Quartet
German playwright Heiner Muller is noted for rewriting classic texts into short, densely poetic plays. Perhaps his best known work is Hamletmachine, a postmodern restatement of Shakespeare’s tragedy that reduces the first three acts of Hamlet into a page and a half.
In Quartet, Muller works his magic using Laclos’ Les Liaisons Dangereuses. It’s a fierce and masterly condensation. The playwright employs only two characters, the Marquise de Merteuil (Felicity Steel) and Vicomte de Valmont (Andrew Gray), and all of the novel’s action is concertinaed into their battle of the sexes.
Through Merteuil and Valmont, Muller pays lip service to elaborate 18th century courtesies. Many of their mordant insults are delivered in baroque repartee. But as their cruelty and debauchery grows, Muller rips open the bodice of polite discourse and dives for more visceral language – deliberate obscenity, metaphors of beasts and bodily fluids.
Merteuil and Valmont are locked in a nihilistic dance of death. In Quartet, their games of lust and revenge are performed purely for each other: Valmont’s fatal seductions are re-enacted by the pair, with each changing gender-roles, taking turns to play seducer and victim.
The intensity of this production is enhanced by Grant Cooper’s brilliantly conceived set design. Muller wanted the setting to evoke a pre-Revolutionary drawing room and a World War III bunker. Cooper’s idea is better. We get a four-walled drawing room, with the audience peering down from above, like a crowd at a gladiatorial arena. The only gestures to modernity are closed circuit TVs built into the walls.
Steel brings lascivious energy and black humour to the role of Merteuil, and is suitably saturnine when she switches to Velmont’s part. Gray isn’t as strong, tending to be overly mannered.
Xan Colman’s direction is alive to Muller’s poetry, although some of the playwright’s ideas are lost, the language too impacted to emerge fully in performance. He needs to open the text out more.
A is for Atlas often merge art music and theatre. Composer Annie Hsieh’s chromatic modern reinterpretation of Hadyn’s Razor Quartet, performed by Larissa Weller (violin) and Jonathan Tosio (cello), is a compelling accompaniment. Hsieh collapses the quartet into two parts and unleashes a wild antagonism from Hadyn’s regulated harmonies. It isn’t easy listening – more torture chamber music than chamber music – but it complements the dramatic action perfectly .