DRESDEN is a new Australian play by Justin Fleming.
August Kubizek, remembers attending a performance of Richard Wagner's opera RIENZI, der Letzte der Tribunen (the last of the Tribunes), of 1838-40, in the relatively new Opera House, the Konigliches Hoftheater, in Dresden, with his young 17 year old friend, Adolf Hitler, in 1906. The libretto was written by Wagner, based on the book by British novelist, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, and tells the story of Rienzi, a late medieval populist who succeeded in out-witting and defeating the ruling class of nobles, setting up government with power for the people, only to ultimately lose the confidence of those 'people' to be then conflagrated in the Capitol. Kubizek, supposedly, reminded Hitler of that experience in 1939 and was told: "At that hour it all began." Whether that is hearsay or not, Hitler was given the original score on his fiftieth birthday and had it with him in the Berlin bunker when he too was conflagrated.
What are the incidents of art experience that have hinged as major turning points in anyone's life? I claim Dostoyevsky's THE IDIOT, which I read in my late teens, as a significant shaper of my life choices. In DRESDEN, Justin Fleming, claims the opera RIENZI of Wagner to be significant for Hitler and part of the inspiration for his throw at destiny - and there is an uncanny parallel that can be traced.
Mr Fleming is an Australian playwright that has written a wide web of material. Of late, we have come to delight in his translations/adaptations of some of Moliere's classics, TARTUFFE, THE SCHOOL FOR WIVES, THE LITERATI, THE MISANTHROPE, in robust Australian vulgarisms.
But, as well, he is one of those rare Australian playwrights that reaches outside the 'Aussie' bubble to give us work of a more International flavour and 'history'. For example: in 1983, THE COBRA - a play concerning the older Lord Alfred Douglas (played by Sir Robert Helpmann) and his fulminations around Oscar Wilde; and later, in 1989, HAROLD IN ITALY, a ballet/drama, unforgettable in its daring format, with its musical quotes from composer Berlioz. Mr Fleming is not shy of engaging, teasing, stretching the intellect and loading conceptual knowledge for our edification, his homegrown audiences.
|Photo by Clare Hawley
And so, with DRESDEN where we meet Richard Wagner (Jeremy Waters) diarising his life to his second wife, Cosima (Renee Lim) remembering his youthful penurious peril, ducking his creditors whilst inducing through self-deprecation figures of influence such as Meyerbeer (Tom Campbell) to consider and promote RIENZI, his third work for production, and after succeeding, of the consequent struggle with the artists bringing his first performed opera - or as he preferred Music Drama - to life in the theatre: the tenor Tichatsheck (again, Tom Campbell) and Reissiger, Kapelmaster, and Schladebach (both, Dorje Swallow). This story, in tandem with the collision of Hitler with the REINZI opera, in 1906, and the parallels between Hitler's life and Wagner's art is the speculative drama of the play.
Directed by Suzanne Millar, for bAKEHOUSE Theatre Co, Ms Millar has collected, mostly, a talented group of actors to bring credibility to this ambitious play. Yalin Ozucelik, gives an assured performance of Hitler from the age of 17 until his final moments in the bunker in Berlin in 1945 without any grotesque histrionics, he aiming to show the impressionable and subsequently deluded and twisted consequences of Hitler's fetid imagination that led to one of the greatest waves of human destruction we have ever known, without overleaping 'judgement'. The performance gradient is of great craft.
Tom Campbell and Dorje Swallow, each with a trio of rich historical characters, eke out with wit, intellectual perspicacity and at-hand-skills, characteristics of each of their men without resorting to parody or caricature to facilitate the storytelling and intention of the author.
While Jeremy Waters harnesses his usual over-energetic impulses to create/capture a 'genius'-fanatic, Wagner, from the Fleming fabric: driven, determined, possessed, egotistical, but also fragile, frightened and vulnerable.
Renee Lim glides through the opportunities of Cosima, without much dramatic impact - or is it the writing? - and Ben Wood is sufficient to play the friend of Hitler, Gustl Kubizek.
The Design elements of raised white walkways around a central pit (Patrick Howe) has the advantage of a Lighting plot by Benjamin Brockman to give it detail and life. And, although the recording of the Wagner score seems to be an older one and does not have the aural heft to lift one into ecstasy it is the Sound Design, by Max Lambert, that uses the music to a brimming passionate scale - it creates a feel to the events of the play to give it all some classic depth. (Although the opera was often performed in the 19th Century, it is rarely seen nowadays.)
bAKEHOUSE has had a loyal relationship with the author over the past ten years and Mr Fleming gives us a vastly intriguing flight of fancy in the Kings Cross Theatre, whatever its relevance maybe in the current topsy-turvy politics of out times.