Thursday 20 February 2020

Clara: Sex, Love and Classical Music

What: Clara - Sex, Love and Classical Music
When: 18 - 23 February 2020
Where: La Mama Courthouse
Written and performed by: Elena Mazzon
Directed by: Catriona Kerridge
Lighting by: Paul Reisenberger
Elena Mazzon - photo by Sav Schulman
Clara: Sex Love and Classical Music is a show Mazzon created in 2018 in anticipation of the bicentenary of the birth of pianist and composer Clara Schumann. It is a feminist interpretation of what restricted a woman of such talent from achieving the place in history afforded her husband Robert in a gentle and witty retelling of her life.

Clara Schumann was a virtuistic pianist during the Romantic era and was the peer of people such as Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms, Franz Liszt... and the list goes on. More than their match on the piano, she also dabbled in composition although - as Mazzon shows us - her life as wife of male composer and mother of 7 children, it was just not possible for her to develop her compositional skills. Especially when her husband forbade her to play whilst he was composing because it interfered with his creativity...

Whilst there is a moderate body of work which shows she had talents as a composer, what most people don't understand is she was the rock star of her era. A child prodigy who started touring at the age of 9, Clara Schumann basically invented the concept of playing recitals by memory -  now a common expectation - and, in fact, really made the piano recital the popular performance mode which has dominated so much of musical presentation since her death.

Sadly, you won't hear any of this in the show Clara: Sex, Love and Classical Music because despite Mazzon's feminist approach, all she really does is continue the patriarchal framing of women in history by the men surrounding them rather than the achievements themselves. As with all the films and other retellings of Clara's life, Mazzon focusses on the controversial marriage to Robert Schumann (against her domineering father's wishes and the subject of a court case), and her unconsummated love affair with Brahms. The great irony of a patriarchal history is embedded in the reality that it was Clara's skill and popularity which really allowed Robert's and Bach's music to be heard and therefore recognised - a truism all women know and can relate to.

As a tale of love and historic oppression, Clara is still quite a telling and insightful show though. What Mazzon does well is show exactly how having children is an immediate impediment to a woman's career - something we know is true even in the 21st century. There is also the intriguing truth that 3 weeks of Clara going on a concert tour earned the household more money than a year of Robert's composing and editing. I also loved the honesty of the Brahm's love story and how important it was in a pre-contraception era for a woman to avoid sex.

I don't know if this is a recent addition to the show, but there is a striking moment of unity of art and politics as Clara berates an orchestra she is conducting because Robert fell ill. She references how she can see how unaccustomed the men are to a women being there because of the lack of female toilet facilities. Give the recent sports rorts in our federal political arena this tiny moment of witty observation echoed resoundingly around the room. Don't think of that as ancient history either, because I know in the early eighties (1980's that is) women were still being denied employment because workplaces did not have female toilet facilities!

Mazzon's performance is lively and delicate at the same time. I was a bit confused about her constant air of nerves though (beyond the opening conceipt which is hilarious). Clara was a strong woman raised by a demanding father, mother to 7 children and the major bread winner in her family. Portraying her as a delicate flower seems odd and is not really in harmony with her music which is darker and perhaps more risk taking than that of her husband's.

The dramaturgy is not the best. Time shifts around. That doesn't bother me, but the narrative logic of the shifts is slightly opaque. There is also some tedious repetition. I really only needed to hear about Robert's repression of playing while he composes once. Not three times in a work which sits at around an hour long.

I also really wanted the story to be more connected to the music and I just wanted more music generally. The Romantic era is about music being connected to narrative and there are moments when it works well in Clara - such as the use of variations as a means of communication between the Schumann's when they are banned from contact. Beyond that though, the linkages are weak and the music seems more of a performance requirement. I suspect this is a problem with the direction because Mazzon rarely played and spoke. The story telling and the music felt somewhat disconnected. Kerridge needed to work harder to have those two modes blend I feel.

Clara: Sex, Love and Classical Music is a solid piece of theatre with a lot of laughs built in. It definitely lets us inside the world of Clara Schumann as a woman even though it doesn't really speak to her impact on music and her true place in history. A better piano would make the music speak a bit louder in the work (metaphorically speaking) but we all know how expensive having a piano in any show is (with the cost of hire, transportation and tuning) so congratulations on making this work in an independent context. It is definitely a show which benefits from intimacy and would have shone in glory in the old La Mama theatre.

3 Stars

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