Perth International Arts Festival‘s opening weekend will be hard to top, with Refuse the Hour setting the precedent. The bar is now set extremely high, but if this production is any indication of things to come, we’re in for a spectacular season of performance at PIAF.
As with other works from Kentridge, it’s heavily multi-media, with video and animation (by Kentridge and Catherine Meyburgh) that both accompanies the action and has its own internal narrative. It’s also opera. It’s also dance. And it’s also science, history and politics. There is so much at work in this piece, so many elements coming together, so many ideas touched upon and expressed through word, sound and vision, that it’s nearly impossible to take it all in in one viewing.
From the very beginning, as the unmanned drum kit suspended above the stage begins thumping and tapping, the giant metronomes begin ticking, and the performers board the stage, we’re off on a steam train towards wonder, amazement, and awe. Kentridge himself narrates the piece, half storybook reader, half lecturer. He winds his way through the subject of time, but it’s not all a forward motion; Kentridge’s aim is to rewind, to “UNDO, UNSAY, UNSAVE, UNREMEMBER, UNHAPPEN.” We travel forward by going backwards, away from what we know to be true, back before our concept of time on earth became uniform and unified by the strong arm of European colonialism.
His refusal of time is not a wispy, sentimental wish to stave off the march of time; it’s political, scientific, logical. “Give us back our sun” is one of the slogans offered up in the piece. On the surface, the words may seem poetic and enigmatic, but Kentridge, in his circuitous and astounding way, unravels the phrase for us by explaining how the noon sun was hijacked by Europeans, time was compartmentalized, and imperial systems were imposed around the world. Kentridge does a much better job explaining this idea through this work, and his rallying cry is best seen and felt in the theatre, in the moment, rather than translated through a third party such as myself.
One could almost accuse Kentridge of trying to do too much in this piece, as our minds and senses are pushed to the limit. So much of the time there are 3 or more things happening at on stage that it becomes impossible to register it all. But the cumulative effect, rather than being overwhelming, is supremely stimulating.
Vocalist Ann Masina gives us beautiful soaring arias, composed, along with all the other music by Philip Miller, while vocalist Joanna Dudley responds in reverse: she sings backwards with distortion, using a megaphone. This call and backwards response carries on throughout the piece, always with a chilling, otherworldly effect. Choreographer Dada Masilo provides a counterpoint to the vocals, and also appears throughout the video projections; she is a whirlwind and a fleet-footed elemental force that moves around the stage with electric precision.
Indeed one of the most impressive aspects of this work is the masterful design by Sabine Theunissen. The Perth Concert Hall stage is transformed completely – gone are the organ pipes and the choir loft; they’ve been covered by giant flats painted to resemble a pile of papers with key phrases in large typeface. It’s something like an artist/scientist/philosopher’s space, not quite as fanciful and overused an aesthetic as steampunk, but it definitely has that cobbled-together feel. The costumes provide splashes of primary colour, with bold lines and text painted on portions of the garments. There is nothing inharmonious or incongruous about any design element, right down to the lighting and band’s attire and instruments.
Refuse the Hour sits at the pinnacle of what is possible in live performance when brilliant minds meet to create something powerful, intelligent and spectacular.
Refusal of Time was performed at the Perth Concert Hall from 12 to 14 Feb.