The song is a hot coal in the hollowed pith of a great fennel, smouldering life, with music and voice, the kindling, and dance, too, an earthen floor, action, dust rising, song rising, hearts gaining, spirits waking, blooming in the astonishing, joyful space, as body and mind contend, whirling through forms, through dance and music, circling the bright effulgence, the song, resolving to a single point, an event, an experience, like a live bird twitching the blood, or a breath’s caress from nape to throat, the theatre event, which, as soon as it resolves, at once begins to slack, everything subsiding, settling, fading, soothing, until, again, there is only one, the hot coal in the hollowed pith of a great fennel, the song, which each of us may carry forth.
And what fuss is this? It is independent theatre company Four Larks, of course, one Melbourne’s most ecstatic collective imaginations, ecstatic but at all times humble and honest in their ambition only for song, space, story, music and life.
Orpheus is their second production this year, following April’s The Fate of Franklin and His Gallant Crew. It’s an invigorating presentation. Its dedicated liveness, its magnetic joy, is here warmly recommended as a spiritual curative against marasmic winter and any asocial tendencies that may have been brought on by cold draughts and drizzle.
The song, their song, is the orphic catabasis, Orpheus’s journey into the underworld to fetch his lost love, Eurydice, struck and killed by a serpent among the long valleys of upper Thrace. Orpheus is distraught, but bold, too, in his conviction that he alone can seduce Death and carry back his love into the light of life. He descends to Tartarus. There, in the so-called Harrowing of Hell, he beguiles the Ferryman of the Dead, enchants the Three-headed Hellhound, chats awhile with the punished souls of Tantalus, Sisyphus and three rather catty daughters of Danus, before at last confronting Hades and Persephone, King and Queen of the underworld.
There exist a great many dark and light variations on the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, from Plato’s grotesque, where Eurydice emerges from hell as a brain-hungry ghost-zombie (truly so, it’s in The Symposium, sort of), to the resurrection myth of the pre-classical orphic religious cults, where Eurydice is happily reborn with the turning of winter to spring. Here, in the lyrical text, adapted from various sources by Jesse Rasmussen and Mat Sweeney, the myth is given a pastoral treatment, using Virgil’s re-telling of events in the Georgics as its primary inspiration. This is well chosen, as the more structural emphases in the Roman version, which is in essence a story about telling a story, accords best to the operatic spectacle-form which Four Larks evolve.
They describe what they do as “junkyard opera”, and, indeed, “operatic” seems an apt description, for although Four Larks work in a folksy, indie, rustic kind of aesthetic, and aren’t shy of crude stage business and caricatures, they also demonstrate a serious, sophisticated and disciplined attitude to the presentation of their final product.
In Melbourne, there are a number of artists across multiple art forms who might place themselves in or around this same “junkyard” aesthetic, but, even within the junkyard, artists can choose either to prefer an Apollonian or a Dionysian practice. The Larks, like Orpheus, received their lyre from Apollo. They eschew the visceral Dionysian party-cum-cabaret-cum-rock’n’roll-smash-up that has gained attention for other “junkyard” cabaret, circus, live band and theatre groups in recent times, and thereby distinguish themselves as craftspeople.
Ellen Strasser and Sebastian Peters-Lazaro in particular are distinguishing themselves with some of the very best set design and prop work in the country. You rarely see design work this good at any production level, from state theatre companies down. That’s not hyperbole. It might just qualify as hyperbole if I described the design work in Orpheus as Wagnerian in its commitment to the absolute transformation of space and the cohesion of spectacle. And then only just. But even if Wagner is too much, there is at least, demonstrably, a level of extravagance in the effort and a level of obsession in the detail that makes their work with the Larks unique.
Mat Sweeney and Ellen Warkentine, as Music Directors, together with the rest of the band, Oliver Hunter, Genevieve Fry, Prudence Rees-Lee and Esala Liyanage, have produced a suite of affecting indie-pop and folk-influenced songs to carry the text, which they do effortlessly. It’s the kind of thing where you’d say, “It’s a show worth seeing for the music alone.” Which is true, but the music is so closely bound about the performance and the text and the design that it can’t fairly be pulled from the total Four Larks aesthetic because it gains so much of its magic from where it sits within the production (on the tray of an old wagon, as it happens).
The text, as mentioned, is emphatically lyrical. While there are some virtuoso pastoral moments in the prologue/epilogue, showing off some surprisingly sophisticated rhetorical figures, the best, strongest moments in the text are actually song lyrics, by Jesse Rasmussen, where some of the vagueness in Orpheus’s progress and in the clunkier shifts of voice between the comedic and the poetic are overcome in the fusion of melody and verse.
The Four Larks team is so large that it’s difficult to do justice to all the contributions that impress during the performance. If there is a weakness in the show, with the ensemble cast itself, it is perhaps because the burden of enlivening those various contributions falls squarest on the actors. But on this occasion such problems are swamped by the multiple successes of the production, successes which were so overwhelming that it seemed, emerging into the damp navyblue of Northcote, that the very cobbles and pavings and even the tar of the roads had shifted, that they lay differently, as though in the pattern of a dance, all turned toward a small warehouse in Northcote and the merry players within, turned like the conch of listening ear.
The details: Orpheus, an original adaptation, plays July 20 to August 1 (Tuesday to Sunday) at 8pm at The Little Bakery, Northcote, meet at the corner of Clarke and Little Bakers Streets.