Sunday, February 19, 2012

Little Match Girl

Sydney Festival 2012 and Malthouse Theatre present Meow Meow's LITTLE MATCH GIRL at The Famous Spiegeltent, Hyde Park, Sydney.

Meow Meow is one of the exciting and not to be missed creative artists working in Australia. And with LITTLE MATCH GIRL the skills are impressive and production-wise, the appetite and ambition of vision of this work is both breathtaking and challenging.

LITTLE MATCH GIRL created by Meow Meow and Iain Grandage, directed by Marion Potts and produced by Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne, has taken the Hans Christian Andersen story as a starting point. Today, we are mightily mistaken when we accept Mr Andersen's stories as children's stories, alone, for they are as enlightening and confrontingly powerful to the human condition, albeit, wrapped in that aforementioned guise, as in his contemporary, Charles Dickens's great novels: wonderful romantic adventure stories, wrapped in deeply felt observations and criticisms of the unfairness and the  inhospitabilities of the real world. Lessons not just for children but for all, and regrettably through the passing of time, even now. Still. Neither Andersen or Dickens are outmoded in their observation and power.

Andersen inspired by his walks through the contemporary streets of his cities and touched by a drawing by Johan Thomas Lundbye, THE LITTLE MATCH GIRL "…is his best-known rendering of a subject which continued to haunt him, the death of a child." He returned to his own childhood as an impoverished outsider with the added echoes of his storytelling grandmother's accounts of her own childhood in the 1770's when she, like the little matchgirl was sent out to the street,  cold and hungry to beg and was too frightened to return home penniless. This little matchgirl, unable to sell her matches, dies of the cold and is found with all her matches burnt around her. Mistakenly, the world believed that she had tried to warm herself, but we, who have read her story know that each lighted match, was for her, an entry into an illuminated hallucination of beauty and comfort and a radiance that she had gone into with her granny into the glad New Year. Jackie Wullschlager in her book "Hans Christian Andersen - The Life of a Storyteller" proposes that "This sentimental, condensed tragedy is Andersen's double answer to the establishment 'they'  with whom he he could not feel at peace. The matches are a  metaphor for the creative imagination, illuminating a world which 'they' cannot dream of; the matchgirl is the victim of a harsh, divided society where outsiders are left to die".
Meow Meow inspired by this story and the world around her states "…I'm a highly critical optimist. There are thousands of matchgirls and boys on our streets. Hans Christian Andersen's agit-prop fairytale of 1845 is horribly contemporary. …I saw a documentary about a Salvation Army-run youth shelter in Sydney called THE OASIS (Ian Darling). Brecht's famous  Spurch: "Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral" - first comes food and then comes morality - finds resonance for me with the Salvation Army's charter of "first soup, then soap, then salvation". Andersen captures abuse, exile and abandonment as familiar conditions and food, warmth, love, beauty and spirituality as fundamental human needs, not just wishful hallucinations. Some things cannot be forgotten or un-known, and yet we are now at a point in our world  where recent tweeters in China were discussing the enactment of "Good Samaritan laws" to enforce social responsibility. .... and what can I do? I don't want to be an angel staring helplessly at the debris. I want us to remember to 'be careful' with each other". 

A cabaret artist, an artist with lofty ambitions for her work. And even here in Hyde Park at the end of a Sydney Festival in a strangely cool and very wet summer in The Famous Spiegeltent, where audiences have usually gathered for relatively frothy musical and burlesque entertainments, of music and fantastic physical quirks, LITTLE MATCH GIRL spins a web of magic. True, the magic is not fully affective all the time, and the audience I was with was sometimes uncertain as to what they were viewing for what felt like two hours, (printed program time estimate was 1 hour 15 minutes) finishing at 11.30pm at night, and sometimes grew restless, (not, least because of the cramped and uncomfortable seating)  the serious socially critical aspirations of the work were ballasted with the sheer chutzpah of the artists involved and their other excellent qualities as performers, so that satisfaction was mostly given.

Meow Meow herself has a confident self-identity and is possessed of a musical voice and presence that captures the audience effortlessly, no matter how arcane or discursive the journey she takes us on is, or seems, to some of us. No matter how difficult the inter-active elements are to achieve instantaneous comprehension from/for the audience in this space, be. No matter the intellectual bewilderment of some of the otherwise expectant audience may have been. Supported by wonderful musicians Lance Horne, Xani Kolac, Stephen Fitzgerald, James Manson and led by Iain Grandage with the effervescent and always welcome energy and sublime talents of Mitchell Butel (the joint rendition with Meow Meow of Noel Coward's WHAT'S GOING TO HAPPEN TO THE TOTS, a definitive highlight of the entertainment) LITTLE MATCH GIRL weaves and works its magic, mostly. How different the experience in the  original venue of creation at the Malthouse Theatre may have  been? In The Famous Spiegletent it is being tried and tested to the highest of its capacity to maintain our interest and its ambitious integreties. For my part, I was intrigued and in wonder at the daring of the sophistication of the project, if not entirely captured.

The music score directed and arranged by Iain Grandage, using work as diverse as repertoire from Cole Porter, Megan Washington, Richard Wagner, Serge Gainsbourg, Noel Coward, Patty Griffin and Laurie Andersen, also, has original composition by Mr Grandage and Meow Meow. It is here in the dramatic structure of the musical offerings and lyrics that, for me, the theatrical impulse and structure faulted and the experience lacked the sweeping energy of enticing us to surrender, to be embroiled into the promising ethereal flow of the metaphysics of the originators concoctive conception. The visual images and 'tricks'  (Set and Costume Designer, Anna Cordingley) were theatrical and nearly mesmerizing in their insistent power to encourage us to join in and believe, to suspend the discomforts of the seating, but became snagged as the musical structure of the whole, slewed and baulked, preventing us from taking off.

A delight to have experienced. It encouraged me to reminisce about the Australian Ballet's commissioned work, Meryl Tankard's WILD SWANS, and long to see it again for it's brilliant biographical study of Hans Christian Andersen using his stories.

Whether LITTLE MATCH GIRL would have been even more successful in a more appropriate space for the aspirations of the project will have to be judged, if it offers itself again somewhere within my physical ambit, for I am very the work and as always enthralled by talent.

"Hans Christian Andersen - The Life of a Storyteller" by Jackie Wullschlager. Published by Allen Lane the Penguin Press 2000.

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