Monday 19 February 2024

HOUSE OF THE HEART: Cabaret Review

What: House of the Heart
When: 15 Feb - 10 Mar 2024
Where: Museum of Chinese Australian History
Created by: Moira Finucane & Jackie Smith
Performed by: Paul Fabian Cordeiro, Zitao Deng, Moira Finucane, Kate Marie Foster, Dave Johnston, Sophie Koh, Rachel Lewindon, Lois Olney, Raksha Parsnani, and Xiao Xiao

Zitao Deng - photo by Jodi Hutchinson

I rarely review shows twice. Usually, I question whether there is anything new for me to talk about. House of the Heart is a different kind of show though. House of the Heart takes us on many journeys through storytelling and music and dance, and having seen the first iteration last year I couldn't resist seeing the show again. Whilst still being presented in the Museum of Chinese Australian History, how could I possibly resist sitting with these wonderful artists and hearing their stories again, learning even more about them, the world, and myself along the way?

The timing of House of the Heart is no coincidence. The Lunar New Year has just taken place and this year is the year of the Wood Dragon. Moira Finucane (co-creator/performer) is a Wood Dragon. This is her year! Finucane starts the show by taking the time to tell us about the processional dragons in the room. I was lucky enough to be sitting right across from the Millenial Dragon (Dai Loong) - the one we see at Moomba every year. Dai Loong's body is so long (he is the longest processional dragon in the world), he wraps around the floors of the museum all the way to the bottom, just as he wraps around our hearts every year in the parade, and just like he wraps around the audience in the Dragon Gallery.

Finucane's tale winds downstairs with Dai Loong to the authentic replica mining town on the lowest floor, only to remind us of that dreadful White Australia Policy we will never be able to live down. Finucane explores all of her amazing connections with China, Chinese arts, and the Chinese Museum. We learn of the connection to her family and how central her connections with this museum are to how she travels through her life. A bit later she will reveal her German-Jewish grandmother's flight from the Third Reich and suddenly all the pieces which underpin House of the Heart fall into place.

Across the evening, we hear beautiful and heartbreaking stories of families being torn from their homes for a multitude of reasons. Sophie Koh sings across English and Chinese (I'm not sure which dialect) as she introduces us to the first ever Chinese pop song - and it is good! It certainly got me bouncing around in my seat! We learn about her family's migration to Aotearoa (New Zealand). Paul Cordeiro tells us the heart-breaking story of the fate of his brother only months after the family migrated from Singapore to Perth. As he sings some verses of 'Moon Shadow' I realise I have never really listened to that song before. I should have. Zitao Deng sings in three languages about their search for peace and a complicated relationship with their homeland, Taiwan. 

Finucane is back to tell us about swifts as Xiao Xiao plays her glorious and mournful cello. I love the story of the swifts. This is one of my favourite moments in the show. Raksha Parsnani celebrates her freedom with a glorious belly dance, having been told in her youth she would never be a professional dancer. New to this show for me is Kate Foster who sings a ballad version of 'Tenterfield Saddler'. So gentle. So sad. So tender.

The jewel in the crown, though, is Lois Olney, accompanied by Dave Johnston. With a voice reminiscent of (but better than IMO) Natalia Cole, Olney sings 'Autumn Leaves' and 'It's A Wonderful World' to remember her mother and son, both now gone. Olney was a stolen child who grew up in Perth. It took far too long for her to find her story and return to her mother's lands in Roeburn. She was 3 years too late to meet her mother but stays connected with her community. She sings us the only song she knows in her mother's language. 

Last year I came away from House of the Heart with resounding echoes of gentleness and sorrow. This year it felt different. Is the difference time? Is it something in the storytellers? Is it me? This year I come away thinking about the rebellion of human migration. The refusal to give up and stay in one place when that place is not giving you what you need or want. A refusal to have our lives predetermined. Moving our bodies in time and space is an act of searching. Searching for love, searching for food and sustenance, searching for a safe haven. 

For most migrants and - in particular, refugees - can never go back to their ancestral home for a myriad of reasons. Even if they do, it is not the same. Part of the contract of the journey though is there are no guarantees you will find what you are looking for, and it is hard to forget what you give up and sometimes even harder to remember why you gave it up. Or as is the case with Olney, you have no choice about giving it up and must then go on a search to try and find it again. 

Regardless of the differences in details, all of these stories are about an irresistible requirement to change destiny, to go in search of what you need to live and love and learn. Everyone on stage in House of the Heart heeded those words of Dylan Thomas and they have not gone gently into that good night. Instead, they find themselves standing (or sitting) on a stage in a museum at the bottom of the world. They sing, they dance, they tell their stories. They remind us of our story and how we all find ourselves in that very same museum at the bottom of the world. At the end of the show, we leave the building and head out into the world in search of wherever we need to be to find our own love, our own life, our own learnings. It is, once more, our turn to choose.

4 Stars

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