Friday 2 November 2018

The Rug - Opera Review

What: The Rug
When: 31 October - 11 November 2018
Where: La Mama Courthouse
Created and performed by: Ben Grant
Designed by: Herbz
Lighting by: Paul Lim
Stage Management by: Jess Keepance
Ben Grant
The Rug is 'an electropera for one pale male' and is playing at La Mama Courthouse from Halloween to Remembrance Day. How appropriate. In a two week period where Melbourne is consumed by European traditions Ben Grant takes the time as a sad, lonely 'pale male' voice to speak out in this country of great potential - if unleashed...

We often speak about artists talking in their own voices and telling their own stories. In a rare yet mighty occassion in The Rug this is exactly what Grant is doing. He is a white man speaking to white men and telling them their story. The rest of us can listen in and vicariously enjoy the conversation but this is a place for the pale male to congregate and speak up.

The show begins with an eerie video homage to the coming of Autumn and sets the tone for a classic Halloween horror story. Grant doesn't disappoint but what happens through out the evening is a series of the incredibly unexpected. Riffing off the Celtic traditions of Samhain Grant indulges in the Halloween idea. Just as I found myself getting frustrated (as I always do) about how irrelevant it is as our seasons are so completely reversed, Grant makes the same commentary himself.

Emerging on stage dressed in white - the epitomy of the ethereal ghost - he then moves into a operatic dirge of epic proportions. His faulty baritone droning throughout the evening speak to privilege and resistance to change regardless of whether it is good or bad. Nothing makes the point more cleverly than his form and structure, however.

Playing with ideas of privilege as reductive as bicycles not being allowed to use roads because it makes it harder for drivers, to the terrible sense of right the pale male colonisers had in claiming terra nullius, his unstable yet confident singing speaks louder than any of the text itself. Who else but a pale male in Australia would dare to create a 45 minute show in the form of an extended baroque da capo aria without actually having an operatic background? I don't mean he can't sing. I just mean he is not an opera singer. The point is pushed home with a little contemporary dance section in the second movement. He is definitely not a dancer either, and yet we will pay to see this...

Don't get me wrong. The Rug is fantastic theatre. Grant uses these themes and techniques to push home the idea that holding on to privilege can be as stale and potentially awful as change is scary. Grant takes us down memory lane to the days of milk bars with lolly counters, grieving the loss of such innocent times just as he grieves the loss of his hairline, hiding it with toupees (rugs).

I need to step back for a moment and explain the da capo aria. A hit in the Baroque period, arias were written in three movements. Interestingly, I mentioned da capo arias in my Gluck review yesterday (Gluck hated them). A da capo aria has three sections. One is melodic, the second varies in tempo and mood. The third is not composed as such. The composer just issues the instruction 'da capo' which means repeat the first section but singers are allowed to improvise and embellish and at it's height the music and story tended to become almost unintelligable.

Grant is saying what we have brought with us made sense where it came from. In coming to Australia everything changed. Now, it is corrupted and unrecognisable and basically not fit for service. White male privilege is not an asset here and we destroy ourselves and everyone around us if we don't let it go.

The Rug goes from being a dirge mourning the loss of the old days and the old ways, walking the red carpet but descending into...(hell?) to a polemic about the atrocities the pale male has enacted in his bid to overcome and overlord. The carpet runs out and ahead is a black abyss.

In the third movement Grant moves into a rock opera (electropera). Ascending a scaffolding tower to rant and scream his anger and frustration at what his people (the pale male) have done and continue to do. His face is covered in pale powder, a white magistrate's wig donned on his crown, his conscious struggling under the weight of the wigs, the bondage of white history.

The Rug is a man talking to men but I would be surprised if the other pale males hear the call. Regardless, it is reassuring to see that some men of that ilk do see the code and not just the game. Does it make things better? No. Can it make things better? Slowly but surely, yes. And it is kind of nice to see a pale male tell their story rather than everyone else's for a change.

3.5 Stars

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