Review: Séance, River of Light, Life – The Show, Brisbane Festival

Impressions of three very different events at this year’s Brisbane Festival, ranging from a homage to horror and a retelling of First Peoples’ legends, to a new variety show.
Review: Séance, River of Light, Life – The Show, Brisbane Festival

Image by Atmosphere Photography.

Programming at this year’s Brisbane Festival has included a focus on affordable events at the festival hub, Treasury Brisbane Arcadia, with price points ranging from free (River of Light) to the cheap and cheerful (Christian Wagstaff and Keith Courtney’s House of Mirrors, a favourite at previous arts events around the country).

Creating access points for non-arts audiences in this manner ensures vibrancy and engagement but also potentially funnels punters into other events in the festival program, converting them into ticket-buyers.

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Here are our impressions of some of the Arcadia programming highlights this year.

SÉANCE

A white-painted shipping container on the foreshore of the Brisbane River, surrounded by bars, Instagramming crowds and food stalls, seems an unlikely location in which to evoke the supernatural.

Within the container stands a long table draped in white cloth, flanked by two rows of old cinema seats. Once squeezed into our crimson-cushioned seats – after strict instructions to switch off all and any light sources, including mobile phones and smart watches – we experience an encounter with the uncanny, conjured via inventive use of binaural audio and its influence on the imagination.

It would be unkind to reveal too much in this review about the surprises in store for audience members who have yet to experience Séance (though one such surprise is unfortunately already spoilt before the show has started, thanks to audiences for each upcoming performance being corralled so close to the shipping container that we can’t help but overhear a climactic moment).

Suffice to say that there are moments where sense and memory come into conflict, our recollections of the space we entered at the start of the show challenged by what we hear moving around us in the dark. The result is impressively unsettling.

Séance conjures up atavistic thrills and old fears. An apology whispered in the dark has never been so eerie, or so entertaining.    

4 stars ★★★★

Séance
Realscape Productions (AUS) / Darkfield (UK)
Treasury Brisbane Arcadia
8-29 September 2018

Photo credit: Darkscape Productions

#CELEBRATEBRISBANE RIVER OF LIGHT

To endure, stories need to be retold. Otherwise, our stories, our histories, can be all too easily forgotten; swept away by the tides of time, like footprints on the strand. 

#celebratebrisbane River of Light is a Dreamtime story of the Yuggera people, the traditional custodians of the land now known as Brisbane. A free sound and light show staged several times a night, it uses simple but potent projections, screened on sprays of water which arc mistily over the Brisbane River, to tell the story of the creation of Maiwar, as the Brisbane River was formerly known.

Watching on from the riverbank, with Brisbane’s CBD providing a dramatic backdrop, audiences learn of a battle between Goanna and Dolphin, and how their spilled blood created dry creek beds across the land. Up one such creek bed came the Rainbow Serpent, but the creek was too narrow and the Serpent became stuck. A storm set the Rainbow Serpent free, with the ensuing floodwaters giving birth to the longest river in South East Queensland in the process.

Accompanied by a stirring voiceover and music which ranges from the cinematic to the traditional, the resulting work is simple but powerful – even moving. Projections hint at the might of the Rainbow Serpent; spears flicker through the falling sprays of water as battle rages between Dolphin, Goanna and their allies; tall-masted ships sail across the curtains of water, foretelling new battles.

River of Light is both educational and entertaining; it is also beautiful. More importantly, it reminds us that we all follow in the footsteps of Australia’s First Peoples, whose stories have been told here for over 60,000 years, and it gives those stories new relevance and renewed vitality.

Perhaps the most potent image in River of Life comes late in the piece: footprints of those First Peoples, evoking rock art but projected on curtains of falling water. Footprints which, like the stories they illustrate, will endure, and not be swept away. 

4 stars ★★★★

#celebratebrisbane River of Light
Oracle Liquid and Nunukul Yuggera Aboriginal Dance Company
Treasury Brisbane Arcadia
8-29 September

LIFE – THE SHOW

Image by Atmosphere Photography

While crowd-pleasers, previous shows by Strut & Fret Production House have been a mixed bag. The likes of Limbo have generated critical buzz, whereas Fear & Delight at the 2015 Brisbane Festival was a ‘laboured evocation of decadence’ in this critic’s eyes, and Blanc de Banc – themed around champagne – was bawdy but bland.

Refreshingly, Life – The Show is a far stronger production, though not without its faults – some of which will be ironed out in runs subsequent to this world premiere season. A loose theme (which feels almost entirely abandoned in the second half of the show) connects an eye-catching series of acts in an exploration of growing up, finding a partner, having children, battling red tape and other elements of adult life. Dutch circus artist Goos Meeuwsen is Life’s everyman; a clown whose musings about masturbation and marriage provides the show’s through-line while also doing away with the need for an MC. Meeuwsen is ably supported by his Brazilian partner and fellow clown, Helena Bittencourt, and backed by a three-piece band – one of whom, saxophonist Blaise Garza, takes to the air at one point in the show in a joyous homage to ska band Madness.

Sequences involving courtship, pregnancy and birth are played for laughs, typified by a scene in which Bittencourt’s waters break and Meeuwsen slips and slides in the amniotic fluid before splashing audience members seated near the stage. Other cast members shine in dance routines and circus acts, with the show’s highlight being a striking aerial act by Elke Uhd and Tim Kriegler which takes place in a giant, condom-like tube made of clear plastic suspended above the stage.

Shifts in tone, from the comedic to the dramatic, are well executed, through musical sequences in between some acts feel like padding, and changeovers sometimes drag.

The weakest element of the production involves its staging. Though nominally performed in the round, too many performance elements are directed outwards, towards stage front, meaning that up to a third of the audience are watching the performers’ backs for much of the show. Consequently, sequences such as Bittencourt suckling a new-born vacuum-cleaner at her breast fall flat for those whose sightlines are obscured. Moving to a new seat at interval provided me with clearer sightlines, but ensuring all audience members can easily see the artists should be the responsibility of the director, not the individual.

3 ½ stars ★★★☆

Life – The Show
Strut & Fret Production House
Creative Director: Scott Maidment
Artistic Associates: Spencer Novich and Nick Beyeler
Choreographers: Hilton Denis & Rechelle Mansour
Cast: Helena Bittencourt, Hilton Denis, Tim Kriegler, Rechelle Mansour, Goos Meeuwsen and Elke Uhd
Musicians: Attis Clopton (drums), Blaise Garza (sax & flute) and Fantine Pritoula (vocals)

The Courier-Mail Spiegeltent
6-29 September

The writer was a guest of Brisbane Festival and Brisbane Marketing.