Sunday, August 2, 2015

Women in War: A sensitive and optimistic new work at Arts Centre Melbourne

In this centennial year of remembrance of the ANZAC spirit, an especially sensitive new work from a much to praise cross-cultural international collaboration reflects on the suffering of women in war. What it does further is demonstrate Australia's potential to tap its own multi-cultural heart to produce theatre that reflects our broader connections to the world.

From composer Tassos Ioannides and librettist Deborah Parsons, Women in War traces the lives of three women from three different cultures - Clarice (Caitlin Spears) a young Australian volunteer nurse, Yeliz (Berna Anil), a Turkish widow searching for her only son on the battlefield and Polyxeni (Irini Tzanetoulakou), a Greek war widow who runs a simple cafe. Their lives are spun into a tragic story of love, loss, bravery, adaptation and reconciliation.

The cast of Women in War 

Set during the Gallipoli Campaign of 1915 on the Gallipoli Peninsula and the Greek island of Lemnos their individual paths converge to reach a climax in which a collective vow is made, while instructing the audience, to never fight again. In a chorus of strength the message resonates, throwing back at us the human conundrum of praying for peace while fighting wars to achieve it.

In its 21 scenes without interval, director Alkinos Tsilimidos compacts the storytelling with sure-footedness and strong delivery. Ioannides' music combines some beautifully sympathetic pieces inspired by each cultural identity, plunging to operatic depths and swept by pulses of musical theatre. Woven with crackling radio broadcasts, sounds of battle, the oft-referenced World War I song, "After the War is Over" and accompanied by Parsons' libretto, which breathes with poetry and realism, an enveloping sense of place is created.

An all-female team of designers build this sense of place via a little Greek cafe and a clear, starry sky providing an inviting start. Set designer Shaun Gurton maintains broad spatial depth incorporating a few unfussy, unmatched cafe tables and chairs to the left and a second-level raised platform to the rear giving ample scope for Tsilimidos' direction. Ioanna Tsami's costumes seamlessly evoke the period and Katerina Maragoudaki's sudden and subtle shifts of lighting heighten the drama.

Tomas Dalton and Caitlin Spears
Women in War, however, suffers from a pastiche of intermittent, interruptive and highly gestured cinematic music verging on the epic, which at times feels discordantly spliced onto its events. Extraneous scenes divert focus from its central characters at times and a sense of congestion dominates despite the ease with which the stories are told.

What stands out in Women in War are the fervently and evenly balanced voices of a cast who sharpen their characters with life and women who etch their grief in your memory. Women driven by love are portrayed with ease from three well-cast female leads. In them, with all their differences, they conjure an inner strength seemingly unknown to themselves without feeling contrived.

As Clarice, Caitlin Spears's bell-bright voice captures both her innocence and common sense with radiant belief, arriving on Lemnos to do her bit for king and country and more than just a bit to see her fiancée Ernest who is serving with the ANZACs on the island.

Berna Anil's passionate expressivity and powerful voice shows the hope and desperation that Yeliz has in the search for her son as she cuts her hair, takes a uniform and enters the battlefield.

Irini Tzanetoulakou's Polyxeni is grounded with salt-of-the-earth directness and a haunting voice which lives in the dark, hiding her loss away as much as she can while running a cafe making pennies from the business of war and supporting her adolescent daughter.

Tomas Dalton depicts the compassionate Ernest as a gentleman of war with a marvellously polished performance and an attractive voice of honeycomb-like texturing and warmth of tone. Together with Spears, the young pair show striking form as a duo.

Jason Wasley gives everything he has to the animalistic Orderly but draws the short straw with a character that attempts to add tension and issue without success. The remaining cast give strong form to help propel the drama and together in chorus they impress with dynamic harmonic blending.

Women in War crept into the Arts Centre Melbourne calendar with little fanfare and might very well disappear into obscurity after the ANZAC centennial year is over. Nonetheless, it leaves a grand sense of optimism for broader cultural forays in Australian contemporary opera.

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