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Cameron Woodhead full review: Duets for Lovers and Dreamers

This review of Duets for Lovers and Dreamers was written by Cameron Woodhead and first published in The Age on Tuesday 23 November 2010. The full review is now published on Behind The Critical Curtain. Please see it in its original context here.

This shimmering suite of short scenes appears to take guidance Walter Pater’s well-known maxim: “All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.” A chamber piece composed in an elusive key, it bends every instrument of the theatre into ephemeral harmonies where love rises to meets death, and memory imagination.

Duets for Lovers and Dreamers gambles with sentiment and usually wins. The opening sequence, “Nana in Knapsack” introduces a young woman (Katherine Tonkin) climbing a Scottish crag to scatter her grandmother’s ashes. Her nana’s ghost (Helen Morse) echoes her progress against video projections of blasted heaths, as their speech wuthers into the whistling wind.

The vocal emulation of natural elements is weirdly enriching, and in the second scene “The Storm”, Matt Cornell’s dance adds a new layer of performance. With muscular grace, Cornell flows through counter-currents of desire and drowning, as Phillip McInnes transmutes himself. First McInnes is a camp dolly soliciting sailors, then a puff-chested picture of naval machismo. Finally, he resolves into the strange aquatic warbling of a siren, beckoning victims to a watery tomb.

It’s at this point you begin to realise the brilliance of the production design. The chiaroscuro of Richard Vabre’s lighting, and Nick Verso and D.B. Valentine’s thoughtful projections, continue to riff off the material, but Emily Barrie’s set makes the screen a profound part of the performance. Spectral scrawl appears, an egg; large concentric circles are cut out of the screen, revealing new screens behind, as if the show were burrowing into the bole of an ancient tree.

This is, in fact, where we end up. Scenes build: a mesmerising performance from Morse as a war widow, taking tea with her silent husband; a dialogue between a mother and her younger self; and a comic interlude where an awkward courtship at a bistro is refracted through the metaphor of fish in a bowl.

Fittingly, the last movement is a fugue. A girl up a tree (Tonkin) dreams of the world above and below. Her flight of fancy takes her high into the clouds and the galaxies beyond them, and down into overheard cracks in neighbours’ lives. The remaining performers provide a sussurating chorus, swaying between spoken word, onomatopoeia and song.

Naomi Steinberger’s direction keeps each strain of the piece in synchrony, forging a euphonious, ruminative and dream-like theatre.

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