PERMISSION TO SPEAK
Arts House, North Melbourne
November 23-27, 2016
(Left to right) Gian Slater, Edward Fairlie, Georgie Darvidis, Josh Kyle
First and foremost, the four singer-actors in this entertainment impress mightily by their devotion to the task at hand. They sing, speak and move around their acting space with unflappable confidence, facing down the occasional amplification system overload with an aplomb that carries the piece along, almost to the point where you are convinced that there must be a point behind it all, and you’re just too thick to grasp it.
Librettist Tamara Saulwick and composer Kate Neal have constructed a work that is hard to classify. The central quartet of personalities – not that closely individuated, as far as I could tell – begin Permission to Speak by sitting on their white cube-seats and letting loose a chain of adolescent ejaculations – er, ah, mmm – which also move into isolated phrases or cliches before the vignettes that provide a plot begin. Immediately, you are confronted with an implied irony: if you have or want permission to say anything, you need to have some sort of message. At the beginning of this work, there is nothing to say – yet – except to defer communication by means of banal temporising techniques.
Later in the work’s progress, spoken words stop and the characters sing detached chords to isolated syllables: a juxtaposition of verbal tics and choral blurtings. What is intriguing is the way in which the performers seem to pull chords out of the air, bringing to mind the splendid chorus work in Glass’s Einstein on the Beach – one of the few redeeming factors at operation throughout that extended exercise in superficiality. But the musical content in Neal’s work is generally subordinated to the often cryptic texts.
Which come at you both from the (amplified) executants and speakers that surround the audience and pile on recorded information employing about 27 different voices. Sometimes, the soundtrack is overwhelming – material overload, a fading in and out of audibility, words and whole sentences sometimes coherent and then breaking into meaninglessness. At quieter moments, such work is left to the live performers who share in a similar complex of straight dialogue and fragments. For Georgie Darvidis, Gian Slater, Edward Fairlie and Josh Kyle the actual theatrical action allows for little slackening off, not much time spent out of the various spotlights.
But what actually happens? The voice-overs and live actors move through a series of tableaux, mainly presented verbally although a sort of mimed death-scene for everybody intrudes near the end. I picked up a few of the stories – a young man offended that his mother has read his emails which contain the news that he is dating a man; a young girl railing publicly against her bourgeois family life in Glen (or was it Mount?) Waverley; a daughter appalled at her father’s matter-of-fact announcement that he has a tumour; a diatribe against an apparently cold, emotionally unresponsive mother. Most of this struck me as commonplace domestic drama, brief snatches that could provide plot variants for TV soaps.
But these situations have the benefit of being familiar, representing experiences that many of us have had or that resemble moments in our lives. And that’s fine: you can’t be forever looking in your entertainment for towering passions like those of Tosca or (more relevant this week) Brunnhilde. Saulwick and Neal take the ordinary and the immediately recognizable as their basic matter, facing their observers with – themselves.
On Wednesday night, it struck me that what these passages of play lacked was a sense that they constituted much more than the situations they presented, that they were capable of extrapolation. It wasn’t so much that you were waiting for a resolution to each crisis: as far as I could work out, there was no intention of working any of the episodes through to a happy or sad ending – you just heard the voice narrating what had happened, sometimes with hesitations and abrupt bursts of development. But the episodes had no context outside of their bare narration.
No, you can’t expect linear narrative in an enterprise like this one where interpretation is emphatically a matter for the individual and in any case is put to the challenge by the constructors’ modes of communication. And you can’t fault the device of recording social malaise as a series of isolated points emerging from various lives. But, at the end, you are left with small windows, only a few illuminated, rather than a canvas to re-examine and relish.
What Permission to Speak bases itself in, what it is about, is an entity that is all too familiar to nearly all of us: the family – more properly, the unhappy family because there’s precious little light in this exercise; even those few moments that moved into humour convinced only a few of us.
For all that, the opening night audience gave the cast and creators rousing applause at the work’s end, and you could understand why. Despite its disconcerting layers of compacted information, Permission to Speak has an unarguably serious intent, its situations familiar to the point of discomfort, the musical content eminently assimilable. Most importantly, it is distinguished for its hard-working cast, whose devotion gave focus and drive to this hour-long enterprise.