Friday, October 12, 2012

Michel van der Aa’s After Life: Hell is (for) other people

It’s time to name (sorta) and shame.

Regent Theatre, Thursday October 11.

Stalls Row C, Seat 31. This bloke used his iPhone for upwards of fifty minutes during the premiere performance of After Life. The opera runs for ninety minutes. He was bangin’ away for well over half that time.

Stalls Row D, Seat 29. Man with an ancient Nokia. (I won one in a raffle in 2005 or early 2006, so we’re talkin’ 2G here. Tops.) Set to silent at least. No annoying vibrations. But... there were at least six sent and/or received messages during the show. And he took or initiated at least one call during the performance. (I think he was clearing a voice mail message.)

The barbarians aren’t at the gate, dear reader. They’re pissing on it.

I’m all for draconian (and possibly unenforceable) laws that impose strict penalties on those who leave their communication devices on, let alone use them, in theatres and cinemas. But surely there are alternatives. It can’t be all that hard -- or prohibitively expensive -- for venues to install short range 3G/4G/5G signal jammers can it?

Either that or it’s stop-and-search powers on entry to a theatre or cinema. Just like press previews of Hollywood blockbusters.

At Hamer Hall recently, I saw a woman hold up a massive tablet device to record some video of the performer.

I know, it’s such a 21st century cliché, but we’re not there unless there’s proof. But the live event -- the live act -- is, by definition, unmediated. Live it, people. Participate in it. Dare to just let it live in your memory. Until it fades... Which brings me to After Life.

The short version: After Life is like an operatic version of David Eagleman’s slim-but-fabulous book Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives. It’s nowhere near as precise as any of Eagleman’s tiny visions of heaven, hell and purgatory -- Michel van der Aa’s vision of what Antony calls “the middle place between life and nowhere” is woolly to say the least -- but the concept will have you mulling over the critical and most memorable times of your life.

In van der Aa’s vision, there is a week-long period between the moment of death and the actual ‘afterlife’... which is why van der Aa’s After Life is two words not one. In that week, one must choose a single memory -- forsaking all others -- to take with you for eternity.

So far so good. The shimmering, unresolved, pantonal music -- reminiscent of Britten, Webern and the late string quartets of Beethoven -- is perfect for purgatory. (And, no, I am not being snide!) Perfect for a recapitulation of an entire life. Entire lives.

And the score is magnificently played. The low brass is exceptionally well rendered. The singing in English is clear and one rarely searches for surtitles. (Lucky, cos this production doesn’t come with any.)

But the basic conceptual problem in van der Aa’s opera is that the take-out memories are 16mm filmed reconstructions. The team of assistants -- the angelic bureaucrats who crack the proverbial whips and impose the deadlines -- also re-stage and film your chosen memory. So -- God, how horrible -- instead of the actual, eidetic, intense memory, you get to keep a stagey film version of it. (I’d want Ken Russell or David Lynch to direct mine, thank-you very much!)

Call me old fashioned, but memory -- to me -- never involves picturing myself. I’m viewer, not viewed. I’m seer, not seen. So, to take away images of your (old) self, mooning over travesties of an earlier time seems like a pretty good vision of hell to me!

I enjoyed the staging, very much, particularly the use of video and filmed interviews. I enjoyed it musically, too. The wonderfully coiled vocal lines sometimes catch the turbulence, the swell and crash of the music, like a dumped surfer tumbled in a wave.

I’d cut the piece a little. A lame attempt at imposing some kind of drama, a catastrophe, is a dismal and distracting failure. But that is a forgivably short scene. I have to say that my positive response to the work was not shared my many -- perhaps not any -- of the people I spoke to after the show. I reckon the Barbarians weren’t having an especially memorable time either. Life... it’s happening elsewhere. Damn them all to some kind of Sartrean telco hell! Other people. Bah! 

After Life by Michel van der Aa. Libretto by Michel van der Aa, after Hirokazu Kore-eda. Technical Production Development Frank van der Weij. Costume Design by Robby Duiveman. Conductor Wouter Padberg. Melbourne Festival, Regent Theatre, October 11. Season ends Saturday.

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