La Boite, Opera Queensland & Brisbane Festival
September 3 – 24 2016
Reviewed by Xanthe Coward
My mother just spent more than 50 days in hospital – two hospitals actually, between two ICUs – and she continues to recover at home from complications following surgery, all due to a bug that travelled with her from one of the 5 Stans. I’ve also been sick since Brisbane Festival opening night and have stubbornly attended as much as possible, in Brisbane and on the Sunshine Coast, where people forget I’m based, without managing to keep up with the follow up, i.e. writing about what I’ve seen. I have, however, perhaps as some sort of procrastination, insisted on (mostly successfully although the place could be tidier) running a household with two extra people in it, getting to some social engagements, camping at North Shore despite coughing up a bigger storm than the one to hit us on the day we came home, and before that, finishing a 5-week teaching contract because unlike reviewing Brisbane theatre, teaching pays. An exhausting term, physically and emotionally. I’ve missed yoga and coffee dates and drinks and events. Everything online needs an overhaul, the garden needs love, and I’ve been postponing the spring cleaning since this time last year. I need new writers, I need new clothes and I need a new focus. But more on that later.
Luckily, most of the shows I see stay with me. And let’s quietly appreciate the archival value of even a late response. Here’s the first in a succession of catch ups, well overdue. Sorry about that.
We enter The Roundhouse to a Disney soundtrack and chirping birdsong, eliciting an eerie sense of foreboding and at the same time, a false sense of security. This is a grim tale, much more so than the Grimm tale.
For the record, Disney’s classic animated Snow White unnerves me to this day.
The forest is inside, on the ceiling. The darkness is broken by fairy lights. Mirrors, the autumn leaves, the branches, a blood stained timber floor, musical instruments and kitchen chairs hanging from the forest canopy. Later, rose petals, sparkles… A tree house, the stairs running up the middle of it, musicians beneath it (the evocative space designed by Sarah Winter & striking lighting designed by Ben Hughes). I recognise Kanen Breen, like a lithe, glittering, corseted Cabaret Emcee, swanning around with his glass of red until it’s drained and settling next to a member of the audience for an intimate chat. He grins like The Cheshire Cat and moves on to the next victim, seated in front of us. I love Breen’s sparkling red nails and mouth, the essence of the infamous red apple, a reminder of the inherent evil and glamorous violence of this fairytale. He’s The Mirror. Of course he is.
The Queen (Silvia Colloca) epitomises everything we love to loathe and fear and admire about the evil stepmother stereotype / ancient mother archetype. She’s sophisticated and sexy, intimidating, alluring…actually, she’s intoxicating. Colloca’s voice is a fallen angel’s, her lower register particularly rich and warm. Scintillating in black and red lace like a Spanish lady of the night, she’s exquisite, a Diva, seducing us effortlessly. As per the original version, without differentiation between biological mother and stepmother, she is one, she is all. Mother. Woman. Crone. Queen. Her tango with The Mirror is a luscious, almost lascivious affair. Choreographed by Rosetta Cook and Gavin Webber it’s the perfect vehicle to set these two up early as the stars of the show.
Zulya Kamalova’s compositions – enchanted swirling, pulsing, living, breathing things – take us out of ourselves and into this dark, dangerously glistening, shifting world of elegance, innocence and broken trust. A waltz spells out the mother-daughter relationship more clearly and succinctly than a few shouted lines of dialogue can do. We feel for them both. None of us actually want to grow old and weary and weathered, after all. Suzie Miller’s libretto succeeds in capturing varying perspectives on the power and fragility of women and the way we can examine our potential, our power, our perceived limitations, our ambitions, and what it is we’re prepared to do to be “happy” when we dare to look at ourselves in the mirror.
This Little Lolita Snow White, the fairest of them all, is an innocent princess turned teen seductress. An innate talent, an inevitability; the product of her environment, perhaps… In her last desperate attempt to escape the clutches, and the axe, of The Hunter (Michael Tuahine), this Snow White becomes every mother’s worst nightclubbing, shame-walking nightmare. Steph Pickett gets the mix just right – she’s ingenue and expert, and sings like Fiona Apple/Jesska Hoop/Katie Noonan (and I see Katie in the bank of seats opposite us but miss her later to say hello to). It’s Act 1’s most contemporary piece, reminding me of the first 16 bars of Katzenjammer’s Hey Ho On the Devil’s Back in both its shape and tone. This is the moment the little girl becomes a woman, beautifully, frighteningly, authentically captured. The most amazing, game-changing piece of the show though is The Queen’s lament, truly exemplary vocal work, which must be heard to be believed. Colloca’s wailing resonates with us no matter how great or small our individual losses, and becomes a cry of utter despair for all mothers everywhere, for all humanity. She wails and groans her immense grief, singing over the unmoving body of her daughter. Singing over the bones. Lost. Empty. Willing her flesh and blood, her little Snow White, to come back to life, even when it will bring about her own undoing. This extended moment in time holds us in collective stillness, breathlessness, until the final haunting note fades. It’s the greatest Medea moment we’ve seen yet. This is an indescribable ache, which I’ll retain from this show for years yet.
The production continues past its perfect end though, redundantly taking us ten years into the future, when Snow White is with child and we see the pattern repeating. The story goes on… I would love to have left the story to go on unseen, leaving us hanging, after the devastating look that is exchanged between the two once the girl has realised her mother has tried multiple times to kill her. The rest amounts to the beginning of a poor sequel and undoes a little bit of the brilliance that is this new extraordinary work, so funny and lovely, and witty and gritty and gory.
I also enjoyed less than others may have, the opening of Act 2 involving Colloca-as-performer-as-The Queen, wrapped in her iconic cape, gliding down the stairs and moving through the audience to offer an apple to bemused audience members – “It’s not poisonous” – and sitting on stage to share a story from between the pages of Grimm’s Fairytales before morphing back into The Queen proper to go on with the tale. A gimmick that seems unnecessary in a work of such quality but one that must have seemed like a good idea at the time. Think about it. Do audiences need these breaks from the narrative to connect, to relate, to remember they’ve come here to experience another world? To help them recognise their world? Despite my questions, I see the opening night audience embrace every element of the production and so I muse, again, who am I to find fault with any tiny thing? Snow White is truly a work of art and I hope we see the original cast recording soon, if not a beautifully filmed version of the show at some stage.
Masterfully directed in this space by Lindy Hume, Snow White is an important, potent new work that reflects our enduring obsession with beauty, power, the mystical feminine and the wonder and majesty, the vital lessons of storytelling. An accomplished piece for a world premiere and perfect festival fare, Snow White is destined for lands far, far away. I hope you saw it here at least once.