This wrap of shows around Melbourne includes a show tucked away in a Chinatown car park, the return of a work by one of Australia’s greatest living composers, a far-from-ordinary string quartet concert, and a show that probes the psychology of celebrity culture from the inside out.
Maho Magic Bar
19 Celestial Avenue, Chinatown, until October 31
In a car park down the end of a Chinatown alley is a neon-lit structure – and it’s not until you’re through the doors, seated at a table and about 10 minutes into the show that it becomes clear what it actually is.
Maho Magic Bar is not a bar with casual entertainment on offer around the edges while you have a chat and catch up on your week – it’s a fully immersive pop-up theatre venue that just so happens to look like a bar. But yes, it does also serve drinks.
Audience members are assigned a spot at one of five different locations – either at a central table or at one of the side bars. Over the course of 60 minutes, each magician takes turns moving from table to table, putting on a short show.
What’s fascinating is that, if they’re not in the same group, two people attending the same session on the same night will have an entirely different experience, with each magician switching up the trick they choose to perform at each table.
After touring the country and performing multiple times a night, all five magicians have things down to a fine art. The tricks themselves are varied and clever, with something to impress everyone, whether you’re a first-time magic attendee or a grizzled cynic whose joy comes from trying to dissect how everything works.
As performers, they also know how to read their audience, so – at least on the night I attended – the level of participation in each group was carefully calibrated. The space and intimate setting is used well – one trick performed by Shirayuri hinged on scent, something that wouldn’t be possible with the more traditional stage and audience divide.
In between individual performances, there are bigger tricks that can be ordered off a menu for an extra fee. No detail is given beyond enigmatic titles such as “Full Bloom” or “Ippan Knock Out”. Once chosen, however, these tricks are performed in front of everyone, and can include audience members, the entire cast of magicians, or in some cases the flair bartender, Jun Nakamura, whose showmanship and skill make him essentially a magician who specialises in drinks.
Melbourne has a strong magic scene all year round – we have a festival, a specialist magic venue and shows performed across the city every week. Maho Magic Bar complements what we already have, offering something a bit different for those who are already fans, and an entry point for those who aren’t.
Reviewed by Elizabeth Flux
Theatre Works St Kilda, September 23 to October 1
A manic Renaissance scientist’s life might seem like an atypical choice as subject matter for a contemporary Australian opera. Biographica centres on flawed genius Gerolamo Cardano, an inventor and mathematician whose brilliance and blemishes are explored through the utterly captivating music of Mary Finsterer.
Most Australian operas are trumpeted in with a premiere season, only to drift off into musical obscurity, never to be seen again. First performed at Sydney Festival in 2017, Biographica has its much deserved return to the stage with Lyric Opera of Melbourne.
The production cleverly uses light, projections and mirrors and is composed for 11 musicians, five singers and one actor. Finsterer’s score is a marriage of renaissance and modern musical styles. There’s everything from 16th-century vocalising to lush orchestration akin to a film score, to electronics – and it all works. Finsterer is one of Australia’s greatest living composers. Actor Dion Mills guides the 12 scenes from Cardano’s life with fervour, his energy more frenetic as Cardano’s mind unravels.
All five singers are excellent. Rachael Joyce’s turn as Cardano’s dying daughter is particularly poignant, her pure soprano strong yet sweet. Douglas Kelly has the task of producing some serious tenor heft and does so admirably. The audience would have been none the wiser that impressive baritone Raphael Wong was stepping in for an ill colleague at the last moment, save for holding the score in a couple of scenes.
One issue, perhaps the result of the orchestra and conductor Patrick Burns’ placement at the back of the theatre, mixed with some amplification and up-close seating at Theatre Works, was the chorus’s tendency towards overwhelming volume.
As an art form, opera often grapples with how to make something old new again. Though we’ll always have Tosca and La Boheme, Biographica is high art that successfully reflects on the past while offering a glimpse of opera’s future.
Reviewed by Bridget Davies
Vision String Quartet ★★★★½
Music Viva Australia, Melbourne Recital Centre, September 23
A solitary seat onstage signalled that this was to be no ordinary string quartet concert. The four young men from Berlin who form Vision Quartet play entirely from memory, with only the cellist seated. Freed from music stands and seats, their physical flexibility is mirrored by their extraordinarily intense focus on the music.
Such focus was immediately apparent in Bloch’s Prelude, B. 63, where violist Sander Stuart unfurled a soft-grained, modally infused melody that was to grow into an increasingly ardent outpouring that lay somewhere between romanticism and early 20th-century expressionism.
Contrasting explorations of folk music’s creative wellspring formed the rest of the program.
Bartok’s masterly modernist String Quartet No. 4 had a freshness born of striking rhythmic incisiveness and impressive dynamic control, especially in the muted Prestissimo second movement, where every detail could be heard in Elisabeth Murdoch Hall.
An extended cello soliloquy in the central night music movement was exquisitely realised by cellist Leonard Disselhorst, neatly contrasted by the rustic humour of the fourth movement Allegretto pizzicato, which was unexpectedly reinforced when a broken string caused leader Florian Willeitner to retire briefly. Vibrant energy and astonishing unanimity in the finale balanced the equally striking opening.
Dvorak’s String Quartet No. 13 benefitted from the quartet’s strong grasp of its musical architecture, the first movement’s rhetorical flourishes and shifting tonalities empowered with shape and purpose. The plaintive slow movement focused on the empathetic playing of Willeitner and second violinist Daniel Stoll. Gypsy elements in the final movements came to life amid softer, lyrical diversions, all delivered with enormous verve and infectious good humour.
Encouraged by the quartet, these splendid, captivating performances were punctuated by audience applause after each movement. In a world of soundbites, hopefully there is still room in the concert hall for the power of appreciative silence.
Reviewed by Tony Way
By Suzie J. Jarmain, La Mama, until Oct 1
Our obsession with celebrity has transformed – some would say degraded – the way cultural news is produced and consumed. Last week alone I read countless column inches devoted to the endless catalogue of eccentricity that is Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop, the latest allegations of sexual assault against comedian Russell Brand, and the extreme forms of digital fandom known as stan culture.
Academics are in on the action too. When Don DeLillo dreamt up a professor of Elvis studies in his 1985 dystopian novel White Noise, the joke soon became prophecy, and celebrity studies has been a reality since at least 2010. There’s even a peer-reviewed journal, publishing everything from essays on the marketing strategies of social media influencers to a Marxist analysis of Pippa Middleton’s buttocks.
The field is so vast, comrades, that academic and actor Suzie J. Jarmain struggles to make a performance lecture focused or coherent enough to delve with much depth into the multifaceted discourse around celebrity.
The lecture sections let this show down. Jarmain’s academic persona skitters around superficially, without developing sophisticated argument or analysis. Some pop culture references sound dated, and more contemporary developments and terminology – the parasocial relationship, for instance – don’t get much of a look in.
What does work better are Jarmain’s comedic alter egos – among them an aspiring theatre actor and a narcissistic influencer – which she uses to probe the psychology of celebrity culture from the inside out.
Jarmain is at her sharpest when skewering the industry, showing how performers contort themselves to fit the celebrity mould. And there are moments of outlandish satire and histrionic wit, from a mockumentary 60 Minutes-style interview (co-starring Jim Daly) after a red-carpet assassination attempt, to the spotlight going out on a hopeful auditioning (“Out, damned spot!”) for the role of Lady Macbeth.
Still, Celebrity does feel pretty basic compared with other theatrical works invoking the subject – the gladiatorial pursuit of fame across theatre, film and digital media in Calpurnia Descending, or the trolling of a celeb as a springboard for social critique in Seven Methods of Killing Kylie Jenner. The intellectual side of the show needs more rigour and refinement.
Reviewed by Cameron Woodhead
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