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Stage Whispers Review: Evolution, Revolution & The Mail Order Bride

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See article in its original context here by Geoffrey Williams for Stage Whispers.

Written, performed and composed by Zulya Kamalova. Directed by Maude Davey. Orchestration and musical direction by Erkki Veltheim. Designed by Adrienne Chisholm. Projections by Michael Carmody. Lighting design by Katie Sfetkidis. At 45 Downstairs until 16 February, 2014. (Vic).

There’s a sparkling gem of an idea camouflaged deep within Evolution Revolution and The Mail Order Bride that deserves further exploration. The essential conflict in its current state is that musically, it is simply stunning, but dramatically, much less so – with a simplistic and perfunctory strain of ‘the wrongs men do’ carried through relentlessly. Not only is this problematic for the sexual politics of the piece, which remain surprisingly and steadfastly inert, but it also betrays the meaning, legacy and complexity of the lives that Ms Kamalova’s women led (and lead).

Beginning with an engrossing scene of wailing and chanting from an unseen ‘wild shaman woman’ Maya, we are then introduced to the revolutionary Inessa Armand, who in R C Elwood’s book Inessa Atmand, Revolutionary and Feminist, is described as a ‘a person who had quietly but effectively championed the equality of women in the workplace, the trade unions, in the [Bolshevik] party and in the home [she was mother to five children]’. Armand also played a key role in the establishment and the editing of Rabotnitsa, ‘the first Bolshevik paper for women workers’, and worked to ‘rehabilitate prostitutes before the 1905 Revolution, trying to organise women workers on the eve of the war, and seeking to achieve female equality in the new Soviet state’.

Then we meet the vivacious Eva, a Russian mail order bride, who is making a video of introduction to send to her Australian suitor. In a clever directorial device (last seen in Ms Davey’s My Life in the Nude at La Mama), we meet Eva in front of the camera filming her video while watching it on a large television screen at the same time. She’s a feisty, gregarious woman, who, with a twinkle in her eye, suggests that there are ulterior motives at play in what will be a marriage of pure convenience.

As the performance evolves, there is an increasingly over-riding sense of a futile powerlessness about the lives of the three women that Ms Kamalova references, which only results in them occupying the discomforting realm of victim association – a place within the conversation that they refuse to so conveniently belong. Their shared journey is not helped, either, by the unfortunate sense that they appear to end up becoming prostitutes. While it creates the opportunity for the perfect performance of the perfect song of the night, it is otherwise an unfortunate choice of denouement that veers toward cliché. Well might Inessa Atmand be remembered as Lenin’s lover, but it might have been more illuminating to consider how that convenient male-associated memory of her detracts from her achievements in the hostile world of pre-revolutionary Russia in which she was arrested five times and endured several years in exile and detention. Why, instead, do we get to see her sipping red wine and bemoaning the male influence over her life?

Just as Eva relinquishes her share of the responsibility for the failure of her marriage and holds her husband accountable for its failure, Atmand weeps uncontrollably about the loss of the important men in her life before, in what is the dramatic highlight of the night, taking to the top of a ladder and calling her comrades to arms. This is where Ms Chisolm’s set, which is fabulous but mostly redundant, comes into its own. Equal parts junkyard barricades and overgrown forest, it remains unexplored and under-utilised all night. The least complicated aspect – a ‘Danish furniture’-laced space where Eva lives – is perfect, and it is Eva who gets the best lines, the biggest laughs and, perhaps ironically, the most respect.

Musically, however, Evolution Revolution and The Mail Order Bride is a revelation. The ARIA award-winning Ms Kamalova has no peer in this town, and her score is brilliant. Her performance of it is faultless, and her superb musicians – Erkki Veltheim (violin, electric mandolin), Charlotte Jacke (cello), Justin Marshall (piano, accordion, percussion) and Donald Stewart (trombone, trumpet) – match her thrilling musicality breath for breath and note for note. And when it is Mr Carmody’s mesmerising projections, Ms Kamalova’s artful vocal gymnastics and the accompaniment and presence of her superb musicians, this is a very special night indeed.

Geoffrey Williams


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