OBSCENE MADAME D
107 Projects, May 23, until May 27
That each of us is wearing headphones as we enter the performance space makes a usually shared experience now oddly solitary. Synthesiser music swirls into our ears as we gaze at hanging light bulbs swathed in lacy tablecloths, fiery abstract images on giant screens and enigmatic installations decorating the playing area's floor. When wisps of echoey voices begin to fill our ears we are plunged into the elusive world of Madame D.
Stunning shafts of verbal beauty suddenly blaze on an alphabet soup of sometimes impenetrable prose made lumpy with scatology and creamy with obscenity. Think early Beckett. Humour is there, too, albeit cloaked and hooded, as is a cousin of erotica – but distant, as if in the next room.
The play is director Carlos Gomes' adaptation of the novella of the same name by the late Brazilian writer Hilda Hilst (as translated by Nathanael, in collaboration with Rachel Gontijo Araujo). Gomes has trimmed the slight, 55-page book into a 55-minute play, allocating the text between recorded voices (mainly Katia Molino as Madame D and Arky Michael as Ehud, her husband), while Molino plays Madame D in the flesh.
Gomes' success in this Theatre Kantanka production is to preserve the book's opacity and disorientation, with help from Gail Priest (composer/sound artist), Sam James (enchanting video projections) and Fausto Brusamolino (lighting).
Just as there's meditation practice for emptying the mind of thought, Hilst seems to be trying to empty the mind of knowing, leaving a present shot through with a labyrinth of pasts, told through shifting narrative voices. There's little plot, other than Ehud's death, although how long ago that was we can't discern.
We just know that in its wake the rest of the village thinks her mad – an entirely forgivable conclusion, when this fright-wigged, vulgar version of Miss Havisham is given to snipping out paper fish-shapes and floating them in a fishbowl, performing a ballet wearing Ehud's trousers over her head and arms, or wearing a pig's head.
Having captivated us, the production stops short of keeping us fully imprisoned in its world, however. The overly pedestrian recorded voices puncture the mystique with their banality, letting us escape the fate of fully giving ourselves – body, mind and soul – to Madame D. But what a rare pleasure to have one's imagination teased and massaged by a work that dares take chances.
John Shand has written about music and theatre since 1981 in more than 30 publications, including for Fairfax Media since 1993. He is also a playwright, author, poet, librettist, drummer and winner of the 2017 Walkley Arts Journalism Award
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