Queensland Theatre Company
January 30 – February 21 2016
Reviewed by Xanthe Coward
QTC’s production of Ronald Harwood’s Quartet coincides with the passing of a great artist and industry leader, the much-loved Carol Burns. This production is dedicated to Carol, “matriarch of stage and screen”, honoured last Monday night in a moving tribute, which took place on the Playhouse stage, beneath Bruce McKinven’s beautifully realised conservatory set. The industry – our close-knit arts community – came together to celebrate her life and her craft, at which she worked tirelessly until December last year. Many friends generously shared their stories about working with Carol. You can read what Kate Wilson shared with us here.
Carol Burns – was one of the most uncompromising, truly alive human beings I have known. To have known her is to have experienced a force of blazing energy that came from deep inside her – on stage and in person. At times, she seemed almost to glow.
– Kate Wilson
Quartet brings together on stage four extraordinary artists – Kate Wilson (Soprano, Jean), Trevor Stuart (Baritone, Wilfred), Andrew McFarlane (Tenor, Reginald) & Christine Amor (Mezzo-Soprano, Cecily) – to remind us of so many things… Director, Andrea Moor notes, “The themes of Quartet are acutely in focus for the Queensland theatre community right now, resonating with the universal nature of Ronald Harwood’s writing. We expect a rich and brilliant cultural life and yet how much do we support those who give us this experience?” As a show of the utmost respect and support, Moor has enveloped this play and its players in a big, warm embrace to emanate the sort of gorgeous feelings you get when you walk into Grandma’s kitchen and smell the cookies she’s baked especially for you, just because.
There is a “peculiar fascination some opera lovers have for superannuated opera singers who still perform before the public. Their frailty and artistry combined with a reluctance to see their careers end is part of what is so touching about these rare people.”
Opera lovers will realize that Harwood and, perhaps, Hoffman took inspiration from the marvelous documentary, “Il Bacio di Tosca” (“Tosca’s Kiss”), about the life of real retired musicians at the Casa di Riposo in Milan that Giuseppe Verdi, who conceived of it, paid for its construction and is buried there, called “la mia opera più bella” (“my most beautiful work”). I have visited this home often and have had the pleasure of meeting and listening to performances by these wonderful old artists.
A recent development at the Casa di Riposo is that young musicians from foreign countries also live there, studying with the older artists and providing company and a loving ear for recollections. This is a wonderful place for opera lovers to support. The institution counts among its past supporters Renata Tebaldi and Luciano Pavarotti, whose names are carved into a wall in the atrium.
Quartet celebrates the individual – our talents, our quirks – but more so, community and connection, drawing attention to the unlikely friendships we form and lose and rediscover…
Harwood’s text is tightly, neatly penned, pulling together the stories and precious memories (as well as those that are less precious and best forgotten) of four retired opera singers who have been put out to pasture – imagine the most elegantly appointed pasture if you will, romantically lit by David Walters – and in doing so, opens our eyes and awakens our senses to the simple joys and frustrations of every day, elderly lives. (You might remember the 2012 film, directed by Dustin Hoffman). We recognise the strength and fiery spirit of independent souls still very much alive inside frail, failing bodies. Balancing wistful glances into the past with bright-eyed glimpses of the future (or what’s left of it!), this show is a strange, sweet comfort, directed and delivered with full, glowing hearts. It’s easy to forget, after all, that one day, given good health and good fortune, in just no time at all, we too will be old…er.
The grace and wisdom and wit and pensiveness of old age comes across beautifully, as does the dry, mostly gentle humour of those who were once “great” in the eyes of their peers and the public, and some more comfortable now than others in their new state of grace. With each performer displaying various physical ailments, and the unique qualities of his or her character, these fascinating people become fully realised on stage (there are no simple stereotypes, nor any over sentimentality), earning our admiration and heartfelt sympathy. Hilarity comes with their wry observations and the relentless sexual references from Trevor Stuart’s character, Wilfred, which are more often than not directed at Cecily, brought to life with gusto and child-like joy by Christine Amor. She’s rather forgetful and fidgety, and I bet you know – or once knew – someone just like her.
Stuart might be that odd and slightly creepy ageing guy who steals a look at legs and breasts when you stop at the library or the IGA if it were not for his delightful grin and rapid-fire delivery of all things a workplace or public place or shared living space should now be proudly void of. His comic timing is impeccable. For Wilfred, a cheeky pinch on the bum isn’t sexual harassment, it’s simply friendly, and persistent efforts to bed Cecily are light and funny, despite our acknowledgement from the stalls of his rather old-fashioned and increasingly tiresome behaviour. Had it been seen in real life, he might be the uncle or the father-in-law who misses out on a return invitation to the Christmas dinner table. Wilfred is THAT GUY. Stuart’s second act costume takes the cake and he clearly relishes every opportunity to draw our attention to it.
Kate Wilson’s Jean is the disregarded diva, a woman of substance and immeasurable talent but with few real friends left in life and so little self confidence that when the mask drops we see at first only a shadow of her former self. She hides a deeply realised fear and the private shame of letting a vital relationship dissolve into nothingness. Andrew McFarlane’s Reginald, a true gentleman, all class, is debonair and adorable to watch. The connection created on stage by these two is that magical thing of theatre, an intimacy that transpires as something we might seek ourselves if only we’re brave enough and true enough in our everyday lives.
Act 1 feels limited by a garden terrace design utilising the narrow space in front of a lush green curtain, which allows very little room for movement, however; it’s a text focused play, and there are four back stories that must be established early on to make this fine character piece ring true. Each story is gradually revealed through the insights (and snipes) of the other personalities on stage as much as it is by the individuals themselves. Act 2 opens up splendidly, putting us inside at last, the stunning atrium of the establishment, a living and entertaining space that also serves as the dressing room (ladies on one side, gents on the other) before our four stars step forward into their light to perform the famed Quartet from Verdi’s Rigoletto. They lip synch it (does anyone expect them to actually sing?), and so well studied is the technique that we are quite convinced of their past success in the opera world. Sound design by Tony Brumpton is on point throughout, down to the last pretty twitter of birdsong.
Quartet is a beautiful, lingering, lovingly crafted character piece boasting great moments of quick, witty comedy and rare insight into the whimsy and reality of the elders of our tribe, perfectly suitable for all ages. Continues until February 21 at QPAC before touring.
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Production pics by Rob Maccoll