Published on November 8, 2007
My first experience at the just-ended Melbourne International Arts Festival was watching two Australian premieres of the Canadian play "Half Life" and an American music-theatre production, "The Temptation of Saint Anthony".
Both were at the Arts Centre, the flagship venue for the performing arts in Victoria, Melbourne's cultural precinct.
Staged in the Playhouse, the 884-seat proscenium theatre specifically designed for plays that don't use microphones, Toronto-based playwright John Mighton's thoroughly touching drama "Half Life" was set in a rural nursing home.
It was performed by the skilful members of the Necessary Angel Theatre Company, and staged with a finely tuned pace by director Daniel Brooks.
The central characters were a 70-plus couple. Patrick is a drunkard and a womaniser as well as a mathematician adept at breaking military codes. Clara is a romantic who frequently asks her nurse to buy her new clothes so she can look her best.
They fall in love, claiming to be rekindling a pre-World War II romance. Patrick's divorced daughter supports his plan to remarry, but Clara's psychologist son, also divorced, is against the idea.
In nuclear physics the term "half life" means the time that any radioactive substance takes to lose half its energy. In the drama "Half Life", one memorable line is, "Life is not meant for you to be happy or to suffer - it's meant for both."
That is to say, if we're mostly happy or mostly sad, we're living only half a life.
As soon as I got back to my hotel room I called my ageing parents.
By the time the warm-hearted applause in the Playhouse faded away I was 10 minutes late for my next performance, but I only had to run across the foyer.
The majestic, 2,085-seat State Theatre is home to Opera Australia and the Australian Ballet, and this night it was hosting "The Temptation of Saint Anthony", an engaging music-theatre piece inspired by a 19th-century novel by Gustave Flaubert.
It was a collaboration between Robert Wilson and Bernice Johnson Reagon. He is the American director and scenographer revered for creating the "theatre of images", in which the visual potential of space, lighting, objects, figures, costumes and movements are taken to their fullest.
She is an acclaimed African-American composer, librettist, scholar and activist, best known for her a cappella ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock.
This was the third Wilson production I'd seen on three continents, after "I La Galigo" in Singapore and Henrik Ibsen's "Peer Gynt" in New York, and his "signatures" remained intact and corresponded with the central spiritual story and African-American culture evoked here.
The main, three-sided set was built like the interior of a church, though plainly off-white with no architectural dominance. Throughout the 100-minute performance, it was painted with shades of various hues and filled with performers in vibrantly colourful costumes who occasionally brought in symbolic props.
Aurally, the soulful experience was like listening to gospel music in church. Visually, it was awe-inspiring. Unlike other works by Wilson, where the characters' movements are strictly defined, the cast members had a chance to act, sing and dance to their full capability.
I am neither African-American nor Christian, but the roof-raising musical, theatrical prowess and universal messages about sin, goodness and temptation uplifted my spirits. This is probably an example of how exceptional theatre can transcend social boundaries.
I'd arrived in Melbourne at 6am and fortified myself with an afternoon nap and a double espresso. That's how I was able to watch with full attention and much appreciation more than three hours of stage work from two vastly different contemporary masterpieces in world-class venues of a city that's only nine hours away from home.
That's probably something no theatre aficionado would be able to do on the first day of arriving in, say, North America.
After all, shouldn't bringing the best from around the world closer to the audience be a prime purpose of any international arts festival?
Next year's Melbourne International Arts Festival is scheduled for October 9 to 15. Visit MelbourneFestival.com.au.
The writer can be contacted at Pawit.M@chula.ac.th. He thanks festival publicist Lior Albeck-Ripka for the press ticket to "Half Life".