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The Age: review of Duets for Lovers and Dreamers

This review of Duets for Lovers and Dreamers was written by Cameron Woodhead and published in The Age on Tuesday 23  November 2010. See it in its original context here.

A sentimental journey to the sound of music
Cameron Woodhead
November 23, 2010

This shimmering suite of short scenes appears to take guidance from Walter Pater’s 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 meet death, and memory imagination.

Duets for Lovers and Dreamers gambles with sentiment and usually wins. The opening sequence introduces a young woman (Katherine Tonkin) climbing Scottish bens to scatter her grandmother’s ashes. Her nana’s ghost (Helen Morse) echoes her progress against video projections of wind-blasted heaths.

The vocal emulation of natural elements is weirdly enriching, and in the second scene, 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.

It is at this point you 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; then 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.

Scenes build: a mesmerising performance from Morse as a war widow, taking tea with her husband; a dialogue between a mother and her younger self; and a comic interlude where an awkward courtship strains through the metaphor of tropical 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, and down into overheard cracks in neighbours’ lives. The remaining performers provide a susurrating chorus, swaying between spoken word, onomatopoeia and song.

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