TRACK WORKS - Mortuary Station (NSW)
Reviewed by Caitlin A. Kearney
21st November - 19th December
Mortuary Station (Chippendale)
November 21st - Demeber 19th 2023
Tickets: BBT (bellbontom.com)
- This pastiche opera brilliantly manages many of the inaccessible elements of opera to present a spectacularly enjoyable, sensory experience -
Here we have something very special, not least because this reviewer had been champing at the bit for some time to see an example of live performance housed by the bewitching Mortuary Station. All the vivid, madcap imaginings I had been holding on to for what was possible in this unique space have been put on trial, for how could any concept trump the fittingness of one where all the action is bottled within… a train station platform? How could anything, in its most natural form, cut through unpredictable (albeit atmospherically delicious) weather as clearly and calmly as the confident operatic voice?
Four commuters and a weary but upbeat station master wait and wait… and wait for a delayed train (this is indeed a Sydney-based theatre production). TRACK WORKS self-identifies as a “pastiche opera”, which- apart from being a phrase you can casually drop into almost any conversation to impress your mates- means in this case that famous pieces have been cut from their original operas and pasted together to create something fresh. Revealed not long into the performance is the kind of silly-but-subtly-clever joke that everyone gets to be inside- it doesn’t matter whether you know the original context of these arias or not, you’re sure that the surtitles on the nearby screen are lying. You’re just pretty certain that Verdi was not writing from the perspective of a teen girl stealing a bottle of Smirnoff from under her mum’s bed to celebrate a school debating win. However, following the natural contours provided by the old arias and the order in which they’ve been placed, the tone of the story rolls back and forth quite easily between comical and flippant, frustrated and yearning, and a kind of tender honesty verging on the sublime.
Photos by Edwina Pickles
The cast of five is comprised of young opera professionals, and it seems somewhat trite to even comment on how musically impressive they are, but it must be said that they are consistently brilliant across the board. The cast is made up of Anastasia Gall, Elizabeth Harper, Michael Kaufmann, Sophie Mohler and Eden Shifroni and each member is 100% committed to both the familiarity of the modern archetype they are emulating and what makes their character tick as an individual. There seems, also, to be a keen understanding of context which does not go unnoticed; many of these performers are likely to be most familiar with how their instrument presents in an opera theatre or concert hall, but none of them seemed to have any difficulty relating to the indoor/outdoor space vocally. The sheer grace of Sophie Mohler delivering Antonin Dvorak’s Song to the Moon certainly stands out, enhanced on opening night by the unrepeatable incidental moment of beauty created by the rain both seen and heard to be falling very heavily immediately behind her little corner of the platform- the stuff of watercolour postcards.
The narrative seems at first to be presenting itself as a humorous but mellow slice of life, merging thoughtfully with the sensory meal that physically surrounds it, and accented by turns with a kind of loving tongue-in-cheek nod to the level of dramatic intensity that is emblematic of traditional opera. It is, therefore, interesting and unprecedented to see two characters form a profound unlikely connection in this short space of time, and one of those characters simultaneously undergo a deep, earnest process of self-reflection, all whilst waiting for the train home. I did wonder how much this really did to keep us held in what was otherwise a very conceivable story, but then again, it would be embarrassingly cynical of me
to not acknowledge that more improbable things than two strangers sharing an emotionally intimate moment happen every day.
There is a very satisfying sweet spot hit in terms of information, in that there is nothing about the story or the presentation of it that demands so much undivided attention that you cannot allow yourself to also get drawn into the pre-existing surrounding scenery and its soundscape.
Having apparently unconsciously anticipated what possible choices might have been particularly irritating when inflicted on the majesty of this space, I was particularly pleased to see how little had been added or changed. Set/props are minimal and infrequent, justifiably used, and are accompanied with soft lighting that is not seeking to assert itself over the elements of the production that are already telling the story effortlessly. There is a very satisfying sweet spot hit in terms of information, in that there is nothing about the story or the presentation of it that demands so much undivided attention that you cannot allow yourself to also get drawn into the pre-existing surrounding scenery and its soundscape. The station was built in what now seems to be almost poetic proximity with Central station, at a distanced parallel with the passing of passenger trains. It is far enough away from this action that the unobtrusive ebb and flow can actually be described as “gentle”, the colours of the view transforming as the sun sets, the rain intensifying and later easing- never disturbing the production, only enriching it.
It’s obvious now; if this space is going to used (and I still believe it to be tragically underused) effectively for anything with more tech specs than a sculpture exhibit from the Biennale) sound quality and effective use of the space’s quirky dimensions would be the first two discussions to be had (right after safety, of course). BBT are absolutely to be applauded for creating what may be the most fitting possible work for the space in every way, but we are a greedy audience. We need more ideas like this being realised in Sydney. Work like TRACK WORKS is a wonderful way to introduce yourself or somebody else to an artform as seemingly-daunting as opera for the first time. It’s 45 minutes instead of three and a half hours, it’s populated by characters that you’ll recognise from every day that you’ve ever used public transport, and- not sure if I mentioned- it’s in an incredible site-specific space with that “just right” Goldilocks amount for the senses to chew on. A space that you may have been passing by your entire life. Now you get the chance to see it come alive.
CREATIVE TEAM Director and Co-Creator: Clemence Williams Music Director: Josephine Gibson Associate Director: Emma Whitehead Production Designer: Emma White Lighting Designer: Morgan Moroney Sound Designer: Daniel Herten Stage Manager: Pip Haupt Assistant Stage Manager: Alicia Badger Repetiteur: Stacey Yang Co-Creator and Producer: Thomas De Angelis Producer: Isabella Debbage Producer: Samuel Boneham Cast: Anastasia Gall, Elizabeth Harper, Michael Kaufmann, Sophie Mohler, Eden Shifroni