Queers are used to being left out of those big straight stories of noble romance which have dominated our literature, film and theatre. That’s why there’s such a mountainous fuss over this new genre of a gay cowboy love story.
But when you think about it, most of us humans -“ gay or straight -“ can only aspire to those grand passions of love idealised for centuries. A famed company from Cornwall is now at the Sydney Festival with another ancient love tale, this one about a Cornish knight and an Irish princess absconding in love and defying their king -“ and her husband. But for this version of Tristan And Yseult, Kneehigh Theatre has a superb contemporary twist.
The story is orchestrated by a chorus of Loveless, a team of dags in anoraks, balaclavas and thick-rimmed glasses who with binoculars spy out those lucky few who have found the big passion. Even to those of us who have got a little lucky, the Loveless are painfully familiar, especially as they search out the audience. They play a vital empathetic and comic role in the circus knock-about telling of this great romance.
Mostly they’re on the sidelines, bashing out percussion mixed with tango, Celtic tunes and dashes of Nick Cave and Wagner (whose own operatic version of Tristan doesn’t include anyone daggy). But they are also ever ready to trampoline into the action and play, at least, the smaller roles. This is exhilarating physical theatre, marked not so much by acrobatic expertise or wit of idea but by its inclusive warmth and energy.
Director Emma Rice has been honing the colourful madness of this ensemble through three years of productions, including a season at London’s august National Theatre. It’s got a bit of everything so if you don’t go much to the theatre, then try this one. It just tells a good story but the improvised magic and asides remind us why we bother to all sit together in a dark place.
I’ve since been seeing the loveless everywhere at the Sydney Festival. Poor Malvolio is ridiculed at the end of Twelfth Night and burns with revenge as Shakespeare matches up everyone else. Robert Lepage’s solo show charts a lonely writer commissioned by an equally loveless producer.
And Antony and the Johnsons are the very essence of loveless -“ although Antony should take heart from his sold-out shows at the State Theatre. A former support singer to Lou Reed, Antony Hegarty is now a star singer of his own yearning and loneliness, sorrow and forgiveness. Backed by a band strong in strings, he sings with such exquisite emotional candour that the result is profoundly uplifting.
This dichotomy of sorrow and yet redemption is in every lyric: I cried everything; everything is new and I am very happy; so please hit me. I was expecting an androgynous showboy singing falsetto, not a shy fleshy Brit in a bad wig who is a master pianist -“ even if he did admit to identifying with the trashy Vicky Pollard from Little Britain. Antony may be dud talent faced with journalists wanting to know the real source of his songs, but he is a generous performer when up there spinning gold from his darkness. Only he can finish a set singing to us to trust your mother with your life.
I don’t know what his Mum has to do with it, but he sang so movingly of bedding down with only the ghost of himself, I was tempted after the show to join his groupies.
Shakespeare’s fat and pleasure-loving Falstaff also ends up lonely and deflated at the end of Verdi’s opera, now being revived by Opera Australia. The merry wives of Windsor, who he imagines adore him, conspire to punish his lascivious immorality, although this gluttonous rogue has been loved by audiences for centuries.
Simon Phillips’s opulent production bristles with burlesque but allows room for Verdi’s score to shine and for the seasonal shift in mood from high summer colouring to darker autumnal thoughts of being older and loveless.
British singer Stephen Richardson is towering in his debut in the role of Falstaff and Yvonne Kenny a delight in voice and acting as the conspiring Alice Ford.
Like Opera Australia, Sydney’s smaller theatres are also competing with the Sydney Festival for our attention this month. Long-time political playwright Stephen Sewell has chosen to direct his own new play, The United States Of Nothing, for Griffin Stablemates at the Stables in Kings Cross.
It begins as a wonderfully excessive portrayal of a severely dysfunctional white American family trapped with the blacks in the Superdome awaiting the next big hurricane. As the parents, Roy Billing and Katrina Foster give fine voice to Sewell’s witty lampooning of the religious and racial bigotry -“ and mad confidence -“ of poor Middle America.
Sewell then takes a wrong turn in giving these delightful caricatures a lot of poetic reflections on where they went wrong as Americans. Highly unlikely, and another director would have challenged the writer to stay instead with his ferocious ridicule.
Tristan And Yseult is at the Seymour Centre till 19 February, Falstaff at the Opera House till 15 February, and The United States Of Nothing at the Stables until 4 February. And you’ll have to wait for Antony to come back another time.