Friday, November 26, 2010

Review: Four Larks' Peer Gynt

By Four Larks Theatre.

I've seen all three of Four Larks Theatre's productions this year, and I'll be trying to get along to anything they do in the foreseeable future. But their adaptation of Peer Gynt, currently playing in the beautiful old building hidden down a Northcote laneway that they seem to call home, confirms just why the company is such a fascinating and frustrating anomaly in Melbourne. It's a case of extremes: what they get right they do better than almost anyone around, but the shortcomings of each work are just as pronounced. I can't think of any other group I'd subscribe to both because of and despite what I think I'll be getting.

Firstly, the strengths. On the level of design and music, this is a truly astonishing company. You could be deaf or blind and still be floored by what you witness here. The sets are imagined and realised with such lavish detail, the costumes and makeup ravishing, and the whole extra-performance experience – of arriving and passing through that liminal space which separates the rest of your day from the moment of the theatrical encounter – all very generously considered. The sound, too, is pivotal to the event: Four Larks are as much a band as a theatre company, and there are always at least half a dozen musicians sharing the stage with the players, pulling out all sorts of instruments to create soundscapes or melodies that don't merely complement the action but are an integral part of it.

In this case, the company has produced a version of Peer Gynt that might be subtitled O Bror, Where Art Thou? It's Ibsen given a hillbilly and bluegrass makeover, set in a world of corrugated iron and dirty overalls and hay bales and woodpiles and banjos and gospel. The score is just as American Rustic, though it also seems profoundly influenced by the indie art music of the US (think Antony, Sufjan Stevens, Andrew Bird, etc). Basically, Peer's love interest Solveig is here played by Joanna Newsom.

The weaknesses? The performances. The direction of the performances. The choreography of the performances. If these aren't up to scratch, most shows would be a write-off. But it's testament to Four Larks' uniqueness that even when all of these elements don't work, the productions as a whole still make a great impact. They're billed as “junkyard opera” and I wonder if the opera tag is what I'm overlooking – perhaps the one-dimensionality of the acting and the artificiality of the movement are deliberate, as consciously distancing as white-face and exclamatory, outward-directed theatre can be. But given the bewitching immersiveness of every other aspect of each Four Larks production, it just doesn't seem that alienation is a particular goal here.

It's A Midsummer Night's Dream acting, if you know what I mean, where there are too many Pucks and not enough Lysanders. It might be deliberate, as I say, and oddly enough each individual performer has a moment to really shine and prove that there are no weak links when it comes to casting. I can't quite work out where my problem lies, then. Maybe I want the artifice to be ramped up, or toned down, or tightened in on.

But if I was the boss of everything, I'd say that Four Larks are a couple of collaborations away from being one of the finest theatre companies in the country. I'd beg Daniel Schlusser to spend a few weeks with this crew – I missed Schlusser's own recent production of Peer Gynt, but the rigour of his method when it comes to re-imagining classics is what the company needs. I'd find playwrights with sparkling new ideas that deserve the fullness of production Four Larks seem to pull off effortlessly. And I'd introduce them to companies who make far more limpid productions at far more expense. Because, despite my problems with Peer Gynt, there's still something going on here to makes it a triumph, if not an easy one.

The Little Bakery, Northcote. Ends 2 Dec.

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