Plexus: L’Invitation au château

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Plexus (Philip Arkinstall, Monica Curro, and Stefan Cassomenos) with Helen Morse and Paul English at Cranlana. Photo courtesy of the artists.

Surrounded by autumnal trees, lush lawns, and the Italianate outcroppings of Harold Desbrowe-Annear’s sunken garden, it is easy to forget that Cranlana is only twenty minutes from the city centre. The house is a cultural treasure-trove, with portraits of the Myer family surrounded by Chinese vases and dwarfed by a painting of Captain Cook, Sir Joseph Banks, and the Fourth Earl of Sandwich (yes, that’s the Earl of Sandwich). Described by Lady Marigold Southey as the “family function centre,” none of the Myer family currently live at Cranlana. The building still has the distinct feeling of a home, perhaps due to the steady stream of guests who gather there for lectures, concerts, fundraisers, and masterclasses. On this particular occasion Cranlana opened its doors for Launch Housing, an organisation dedicated to ending homelessness. On the initiative of Josephine Ridges, Melbourne’s serial commissioners of new music Plexus and the actors Helen Morse and Paul English volunteered a humorous and poignant concert combining music and the spoken word.

Launch Housing’s Deputy CEO Dr Heather Holst explained the frequent case of pregnant women accessing housing services because their current living situation is no longer suitable for raising a family. Launch Housing envisages a purpose-built apartment building that not only provides shelter to these women and their families, but also provides them with access to Melbourne’s cultural riches. While Plexus’ program had distinct ANZAC Day overtones, there was plenty to make one consider the themes of home, safety, and belonging.

Stravinsky originally wrote Histoire du soldat (The Soldier’s Tale) “to be read, played, and danced” by three actors and a septet of musicians. The performance may also include dancers contending with Stravinsky’s lively rhythms and constantly changing time signatures. Plexus and English had their work cut out for them and they rose to the challenge superbly. Plexus tore through the piece’s waltzes, tangos, and Stravinsky’s faltering attempt at jazz. English captivated the audience with a truly wicked devil.

The Soldier’s Tale tells the parable of a soldier returning home who trades his fiddle with the devil for wealth. Awakening from his dream of riches, he has been turned into a wraith-like figure who his friends and family can no longer see. In the original Russian tale the soldier is a deserter, but in The Soldier’s Tale his past is ambiguous. We are simply told that he is broken by war. Instead of divine justice, his trade with the devil is almost accidental, the result of seeing a genial enough face after so much hardship. The Soldier’s Tale draws the audience’s attention to the soldier’s experience rather than its cause. We might approach the issue of homelessness with as few preconceptions and as much empathy. A lack of shelter is a basic emergency to be dealt with before the effects of long-term homelessness take hold, including estrangement from one’s family, networks, and invisibility to society at large.

The theme of anonymity continued with the world première of And I Always Thought by the American composer Martin Bresnick. Bresnick is one of the most thoughtful of contemporary composers, treading a line between craft, art, and experiment. The piece takes as its poetic inspiration two poems by Bertold Brecht: “And I Always Thought”  and “Legend of the Unknown Soldier Beneath the Triumphal Arch”. The pathos of the former infects the subject of the latter. I take away from “And I Always Thought” dismay at a grinding condition of existence.

[…] When I say how things are
Everyone’s heart must be torn to shreds.
That you’ll go down if you don’t stand up.
Surely you see that.

The poem’s first phrase is an artistic manifesto in itself: “And I always thought that the simplest words / Must be enough”. But the poem’s last line “Surely you see that” calls the first into question, leaving Brecht’s “simple words” hanging in the air. This question  provides us with a way of interpreting Bresnick’s approach to the second poem. Legend of the Unknown Soldier Beneath the Triumphal Arch describes the relentless pursual of the unknown soldier “from Moscow to the city of Marseilles.” The soldier is captured, killed, and defaced. A monument to war is then built over his body “so that / The Unknown Soldier / In no circumstances stand up on Judgement Day / and unrecognisable / […] pointing his finger, expose us who can be recognised / To justice.” Chilling stuff. In Bresnick’s composition I like to think that the trio plays the role of the soldiers building the arch. Curro lays brick upon brick of slow, rising double-stops. Arkinstall plays a limping, persistent clarinet line. One begins to feel the weight of the growing arch in the dense piano chords. The piece is relentless, but so is war. Bresnick seems to give us a new manifesto for representing a grinding struggle: Simple words, repeated. But is this still enough?

Plexus have a knack of putting together balanced and varied programs and this concert was no exception with plenty of lighter pieces to offset Bresnick’s gravitas. You can almost taste popcorn in the soaring, filmic lines of Robert Davidson’s Lost in Light. A movement from Mary Finsterer’s “Julian Suite” dedicated to the human rights advocate and philanthropist Julian Burnside gave the audience space to reflect while the trees sighed in the wind outside the Cranlana ballroom. The audience was left in high spirits thanks to a hilarious performance of Jean Anouilh’s comedy L’Invitation au château, cleverly adapted and read by Helen Morse. Plexus played the incidental music with all of the good humour due to Poulenc, at times joining in the play itself. And so the audience stepped out of the château a little lighter of heart and pocket, having raised funds for other much-needed homes.

L’Invitation au château
Plexus with Helen Morse and Paul English
Launch Housing benefit concert
Cranlana
1 May 2016

Igor Stravinsky, L’Histoire du soldat; Robert Davidson, Lost in Light; Mary Finsterer, Julian Suite no. 1, movement 1: “Nobility”; Martin Bresnick, And I Always Thought; Francis Poulenc, L’Invitation au Château.

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