Monday, May 21, 2012

Theatre: The Magic Hour

Deckchair Theatre
Written by Vanessa Bates
Directed by Chris Bendall
Set and costume design by Alicia Clements
Light and sound designed by Joe Lui
Performed by Ursula Yovich

Ursula Yovich (pic: Jon Green)
Ursula Yovich is an experienced and garlanded performer yet, in The Magic Hour, she continues to challenge herself and her craft.
These retellings of iconic fairy stories take her away from her signature motifs, her singing and her Aboriginal heritage, but playwright Vanessa Bates and director Chris Bendall have created a character in the storyteller who, while ethnically non-specific, plays beautifully to Yovich’s strengths. Clearly relishing the chance to fly out of her comfort zone, she delivers a potent, nuanced performance that had the Deckchair Theatre audience on its feet at the curtain.

The Magic Hour of the play’s title is the time for fairy tales, and this storyteller, a solitary tinker with her ramshackle wagon and simmering pot of soup, is part raconteur and gossip, part enchantress and custodian of the dreaming that lives in these great, strange narratives.
The trick of Bates’s play is that its familiar stories – Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Rumplestiltskin, The Frog Prince, Rapunzel and Jack in the Beanstalk – are told from the perspective of their supporting female characters: one of the ugly sisters, Jack’s mother, the witch who locks Rapunzel in the tower. These characters, in turn, are drawn from women the storyteller knows in the here and now, with all their vices, weaknesses and troubles.
So, for example, Carla, Red Riding Hood’s granny, turns out to be susceptible to her granddaughter’s boyfriend’s charms, and the wolf in her bed isn’t there to eat her – far from it.
It’s timely to remember that while we know them in their expurgated 19th and 20th century popular forms, these stories have much older, darker and often bawdier origins, which Bates has gleefully mined.
The Magic Hour is a tricksy dramatic game, and I confess it took me a while to fully understand its rules (I’m sure the fault was entirely mine). Once I did, and especially in the terrific second half, I was as entranced as any kid being read a bedtime story.
Bendall deserves great credit for keeping the stage business simple and familiar, letting the text and performance tell these stories. Alicia Clements delivers a tasty, old world set, with just a hint of Disney, that is a comic counterpoint to the wickedly unhappiest-kingdom-of-them-all mood of proceedings.
Sadly, given the high opinion I have of both composer Joe Lui and Yovich, I was disappointed in the show’s songs. The fault lay not so much with the material or its performance, but an inadequate temporary sound system, which had the backing track seeming to be coming from one corner of the room quite removed from the live vocal, leaving Yovich’s voice isolated and exposed.
That, however, is the only noteworthy criticism I have of a stimulating evening with a fine new work and a performer at the top of her game.

Link here to an edited version of this review in the West Australian 

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