Banquet of Secrets
Brisbane Powerhouse & Victorian Opera
Brisbane Powerhouse Performance Space
April 7 – 9 2016
Reviewed by Xanthe Coward
Featuring David Rogers-Smith, Dimity Shepherd, Michael Carman, Kanen Breen and Antoinette Halloran.
I wasn’t going to publish this review because everything I’ve seen about Banquet of Secrets is amazing; it’s been exceptionally well received by everyone in the country except me…and Sam, who has since referred to it as “Banquet of Boredom”.
As a reviewer, I often wonder about the value of putting my opinion out there at all.
When we write for free, we write for ourselves. And yes, while it would be nice to at least cover the cost of fuel, parking and dinner, and while we’re at it, a lovely little Wheels & Dollbaby number every month, I’m also just putting here for later, something that might be useful or interesting one day about Queensland theatre. Live performance disappears once it’s done, but some sort of intelligent or heartfelt response to the work is a worthwhile record of what our creatives are doing, and how they’re doing it, and where we’re heading together, surely.
I don’t know. It probably doesn’t help that I’m terribly inconsistent, and I continue to resist further tertiary study and the sort of academic writing that appears to be the only way to add any sort of gravitas to a body of work, and instead stay stubbornly more or less within my own little world. That’s right. Write for free, but only for yourself…….
In the case of Banquet of Secrets, I’d decided that since this year has been challenging enough already (and it’s only April!) it was hardly worth making a comment about it. Who am I to say it’s anything less than brilliant? I’ve wondered, “HAVE I MISSED THE POINT?” (if you loved it you will answer yes, yes I have) and, “WHAT IF I’M WRONG?” (if you loved it you will answer yes, yes I am) and, “WHO EVEN CARES?” and, “WHO WILL EVEN NOTICE IF I SAY NOTHING, OR IF XS DISAPPEARS FOR A WHILE?”, which is something I’ve been wondering a lot about lately. At the same time, on several different occasions, I’ve been told by industry friends that they always look forward to reading what’s here and I must publish this review because…well, perhaps other (louder) voices have offered accolades with which they also disagree.
So I persist with this blog (and the reviews that are not as favourable as some) because who even am I if I quit responding honestly to what I’m seeing?
This work is certainly challenging. It’s probably some of Paul Grabowsky’s best work, brilliant by design, comprising complex orchestrations that boast multiple layers (and he conducts from the piano); entire worlds exist beneath discordant harmonies. I don’t mind a bit of discord (life is dishing up plenty of discord!), but it’s not my favourite new work and it might not be yours either… But will you say so?
The reason musical theatre and opera remain separate is because they are separate entities. Each form has its merits and the two haven’t mixed well here.
Actually, they’re calling it “chamber music theatre” but chamber is more lilting and haunting, opera is slicker and music theatre more entertaining. The dialogue is cliched, uneventful, the banter not witty enough. The only real comedy comes from the waiter, who describes each course of a ridiculously decadent dinner in flowery language and declares triumphantly each time, “You’re welcome, thank you very much!” before exiting. He is clearly relieved not to play a larger part in the evening’s proceedings.
Kaneen Breen’s character, the host Jean Pierre, is the next best established (and next best dressed) character but he can only do so much with what he’s been given. Breen’s first solo, establishing that everything must be perfect, reveals the Last Supper premise and his final piece confirms it; it’s the only musical number to make me feel anything; his love, and admiration and appreciation for the friends is touching.
The opening scene however, a thunderstorm (Sound Design Jim Atkins, Lighting Design Matt Scott & Set Design Christina Smith; we’ll say nothing more of her costumes), does little to establish each of the four characters and doesn’t make us keen to hear more from them. The first ten minutes of the classic comedy Clue, inspired by the board game, should have provided Director, Roger Hodgman with some sense of setting up a similar story. Yes, yes, it’s all there, but we don’t believe a word of it. It’s a shame because they are such beautiful, accomplished vocalists and clearly capable of tackling meatier roles.
Unashamedly contrived, Banquet of Secrets makes a mockery of the quest to discover, develop and disseminate “new” art to intelligent audiences. While other writers struggle to garner support to bring their work to the stage, Steve Vizard and Grabowsky over promise and under deliver in this poor excuse for a musical theatre / opera hybrid. They’ve created an elitist monster, which rears its ugly head in a landscape that consistently offers more interesting and challenging work. It’s simply not audience friendly.
We see each secret coming and feel nothing for any of the four characters; predictably, a lawyer, a writer, a doctor and the collector, our host. We can’t ever be sure whether or not the friends meet in a restaurant, despite the program notes advising that this is the case according to the friends’ tradition. (It might have been a more intriguing night had events taken place in Jean Pierre’s home). Apart from the immediate breathtaking impact of the overhead ornate mirror, which is not used to its full effect, the staging is arbitrary, with musicians to one side and an under-utilised upright piano and bar setting opposite. The singers either stand across the downstage space or sit at the dining table. Quite often there is some aimless wandering around the table and through the space. Characters connect with each other by placing a hand on another’s shoulder as they pass, or holding a gaze for a moment too long… Oh! And one number is staged on the table top. Nuance is lost or never there to begin with.
The music is mostly jarring, largely repetitive (Sam enjoys it much less than I do; clearly the world of commercial radio is beginning to have an effect), and it doesn’t help the performers to embrace their characters in order to give us the guts (or hearts) of the people they claim to be. It’s all rather surface level, like a dinner with strangers might be. We never feel as if we get to know them and because we don’t know them we don’t feel any sympathy for them. As each secret is revealed we feel nothing. Transitions are slow and mostly awkward. There is polite applause at the end of each number,although a substantial number of older audience members give much more generous applause during the curtain call. I’m pleased that they’ve enjoyed it! Do we recall any of the melodies at this point? No. In fact, during the curtain call Sam reminds me: even CATS has a memorable tune…
And why didn’t we see them eat? And why didn’t the food on the plates match the foodie photos projected across the mirror’s tilted surface? Perhaps it’s okay to gloss over these details in “chamber music theatre”???
As an experiment, Banquet of Secrets is an interesting attempt to seek a broader audience but sadly, it’s self-indulgent and reeking of desperation, like the mediocre children we insist – not all of us insist – have what it takes to “make it”. Ugh.
Banquet of Secrets appears to have been written for the elite old-school upper classes; the Racer Cruisers. They spend vast amounts of money on well appointed, comfortable racing yachts, defeating both purposes and impressing those who know no better.
Read Grabowsky’s tribute to Prince.
Hear more of Grabowsky’s work at QPAC this week.