Review :: The Barbarians

January 20th 2012

MONA (the Museum of Old and New Art) in Hobart has courted controversy since it opened last year with the exhibition Sex and Death. No doubt the Tasmanian opera company Ihos felt the need to rise to the occasion when curator of MONA FOMA  (MONA + Festival Of Music and Art, but you can just call me MO FO), Brian Ritchie, commissioned them to create a brand new opera based on the 1904 poem Waiting for the Barbarians by Constantine Cavafy.

Utilising the often difficult traverse stage, I had read that we were meant to watch the audience across from us, face-to-face with our own spectatorship, but the room was so full of smoke that most of the time this wasn’t possible. Still, the effect of the performers parading back and forth, performing to no particular side felt like we were privy to a series of private rituals. These rituals included a naked man making out with a fish, a naked man adorning himself with Discount-Barn jewellery and a key-ring on his cock, a naked man fawning and dancing in a spot light. People in clothes included a ‘priestess’ who read the little dialogue in Greek and then English and lit the ceremonial fire, a male alto and baritone who sung across to each other providing the haunting musical interludes, and a soprano who sat down a lot. An ensemble of musicians was dutifully tucked off to the side performing director and composer Constantine Koukias’ score that flowed from brazen to benevolent, often more soundscape than melody.

A chorus of twelve men contributed to the aural texture throughout and appeared sporadically in a series of bizarre costumes. They were an ambiguous presence – were they the barbarians or were they the Greeks? This questioned the basis of defining that which is Other to yourself as ‘barbaric’. Anything could be perceived as such from a position outside it – a pretty relevant message in Australia’s immigration-fearing and terror-paranoid climate, yet the production, with its projections of American flags and sound bites of George W Bush, seemed more interested in an historical American context.

At some point a baby donkey was led out on stage, a bit of a highlight for me. I thought a lot of this show was like the appearance of that donkey. Spectacle driven, even thrilling, but trotted around stage with little integration or significance. Still, the music held it together and it is great to see some challenging stuff home-grown in Hobart.

What: Opera, Waiting for the Barbarians
Who: IHOS Opera, presented by MONA FOMA
Where: CIty Hall, Hobart
When: 18-22 January, 2012
How much: $25, bookings



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