Review: Where Angels Fear To Tread

Written by E. M. Forster, adapted for the stage by Elizabeth Hart
Director: Jim Searle, Assistant Director: Maria Micallef
Guild Theatre, Rockdale
9-31st August

When asked if he thought Princess Diana had changed the Royals, Tony Blair replied that she had taught the Brits a new way to be British. Once characterised by their sense of duty, decorum, and reserve; their People’s Princess wore her heart on her sleeve. The outpouring of grief over her death marked a change in the way Brits saw themselves: they could now be a passionate people, no longer timid about showing it.

The British stiff upper lip - Mrs Herriton (Yolanda Remueira) and her obedient son, Phillip (Tye Byrnes). Photo Credit: Craig O'Regan

The British stiff upper lip – Mrs Herriton (Yolanda Remueira) and her obedient son, Phillip (Tye Byrnes). Photo Credit: Craig O’Regan

In 1906, Edwardian England, Diana would not be born for another 55 years. The national identity, in the view of E. M. Forster, was in need of an emotional awakening from its stultifying adherence to keeping up appearances with proper, protestant reserve. In his Where Angel’s Fear to Tread, he tells the story of a well-to-do British family who are thrown into a lather not when widowed daughter-in-law, Lilia, dies, but when her daughter, Irma Herriton (Kassandra Micallef) realises that the family has kept from her, knowledge of a baby brother.

Lilia had committed the mortifying sin of loving and marrying a Catholic, Italian native. She was encouraged to elope by her friend Caroline (Jessica Wake) who now tells the family that she intends to go to Italy and bring the baby back. She wrongly surmises that the father, Gino (Douglas Spafford) could not care for it. Mrs Herriton (Yolanda Regueira) the babe’s grandmother is provoked into having the babe fetched to England not to lose face with society. Daughter Harriet (Lani Crooks) staunchly believes that the babe cannot be deprived of a proper English upbringing. She is fanatical on the point. Son, Phillip Herriton (Tye Byrnes) is sent with Harriet to accomplish the task.

Mrs Herriton (Yolanda Regueira) answers Irma's (Kassandra Micallef) questions regarding her brother, as Irma (Lani Crooks) watches. Photo credit: Craig O'Regan

Mrs Herriton (Yolanda Regueira) answers Irma’s (Kassandra Micallef) questions regarding her brother, as Irma (Lani Crooks) watches. Photo credit: Craig O’Regan

The British psyche, obsessed with being correct, has put Phillip into limbo. He may have an opinion, he may make astute observations but he’s impotent. He is afraid to be himself. In Italy, when faced with the passionate, forthright nature of the babe’s father, he gathers courage to act according to his conscience and to break the bonds that his mother and living a proper British like have on him.

Caroline Abbott (Jessica Wake) expounding her explains to Mrs Herriton and her son Phillip. Photo Credit: Craig O'Regan

Caroline Abbott (Jessica Wake) expounding her explains to Mrs Herriton and her son Phillip. Photo Credit: Craig O’Regan

What happens to the babe is the impetus for the emotional awakening that Forster calls for in 1906, but that Britain would eventually experience with the life of Princess Diana.
The Guild Theatre’s is an Edwardian period piece, a tragi-comedy of manners where droll wit rewards the attentive ear.

Jim Searle’s set is sumptuous – three different locales defined on the one playing area with the aid of a staircase and raised platform. The interiors of an English sitting room and Italian hotel are gorgeously recreated.

Caroline (Jessica Wake), Harriet (lani Crooks) and Phillip (Tye Byrnes) at the Hotel Stella d'Italia, Monteriano, Italy. Photo Credit: Craig O'Regan

Caroline (Jessica Wake), Harriet (lani Crooks) and Phillip (Tye Byrnes) at the Hotel Stella d’Italia, Monteriano, Italy. Photo Credit: Craig O’Regan

The costumes are beautiful. Each actor is decked out with historical authenticity. Jessica Wake particularly looks like she walked out of an Edwardian postcard and carries herself with aplomb.

Irrepressible Caroline (Jessica Wake) comes face-to-face with the ebullient father, Gino, (Douglas Spafford). Photo Credit: Craig O'Regan

Irrepressible Caroline (Jessica Wake) comes face-to-face with the ebullient father, Gino, (Douglas Spafford). Photo Credit: Craig O’Regan

There are many strong performances by the cast. Lani Crooks’, prim Harriet delights with her naïve belief in British supremacy. She encapsulates Harriet’s energy and passion with the plasticity of her facial expressions. Tye Byrnes’ Phillip is suitably droll. Douglas Spafford bubbles with Italian passion and exuberance. Tragi-comedy can be difficult to pull off, but the interactions between these four mains rolls. Special mention of child actress Kassandra Micallef who carried her role well.

For Bookings ph: 9520 7364 or bookings@guildtheatre.com.au

First published in the online St George and Sutherland Shire Leader, 16th August, 2019.

Review: Trojan Women

Trojan Women by Euripides

Hellenic Art Theatre

Director: Stavros Economidis

Euripides was a complex fellow. He wrote tragedies for the stage that garnered him a lot of negative criticism but also public acclaim. He revelled in women’s concerns, writing some of the strongest women in theatre history, however, he was accused of being a woman hater. Was he? He certainly parades a few outraged, noble heroines in this production but what of his fascination for the femme fatale? Admire them he did, but he couldn’t quite trust them or the beguiling power of their sexuality. In The Trojan Women he also takes on controversial subjects like the futility of war, raising the mirror to his own community’s faults, painting them the villains. Consequently, he is considered a very modern playwright. 2500 years later we still relate to his messages.

Hellenic Art Theatre is presenting this Ancient Greek tragedy in Greek with English surtitles at their theatre space in the Addison Road Community Centre as part of the Greek Festival of Sydney. Directed by Stavros Economidis, this production has all of the elements that you would expect from Ancient Greek Theatre: monologues; masks; an ever-present chorus and drama, drama, drama.

Publicity Poster for Trojan Women by Euripides

The Trojan Women looks at the devastation of war. Through the experiences of one family – the family singled out by the Greeks to receive the harshest treatment because they are the first family of Troy – Queen Hecuba, the princesses Polyxena, Cassandra and Andromache, Euripides highlights the plights of the losers, the prisoners, the enforced exiles. Hellenic Art Theatre invites its audience to relate to the women as refugees and boat people. Unlike the refugees of our day, they are not leaving their homeland to start again but as captives of the killers of husband, father and son.

Mimika Valaris plays Ekave (Hecuba), Queen of Troy – the human embodiment of devastation, rage, loss, grief and helplessness with the chorus of Trojan Women in the background

Mimika Valaris as Hecuba, is Troy – its queen, its first mother, grandmother, shepherdess and widow. She carries the audience with her as she embodies the loss of home, community, family and order. She is Euripides first wailing woman, manifesting the pain, fear, uncertainty, and rage of all of the women of her city. And her women – the women of Troy are the masked ladies of the chorus. They are the commentary on the events unfolding and the emotional thermometer. If this is your first Ancient Greek play the chorus will impress you in the interplay between the individual members and the group and the stylised use of space. The chorus remains the voice of the individual subsumed into the collective voice of a united community suffering together.

Astyanax and the Chorus
Astyanax (Deon Gama) and the Chorus


Talthybius (Nick Tsioukanis), the Greek’s messenger provides the book end of each monologue but he is also the one who moves along the action. Special mention must be made of child actor, Deon Gama who performed his silent role with maturity and focus beyond his years.

Talthybius (Nick Tsioukanis) the Messenger delivers the fate of the boy-prince Astyanax (Deon Gama) to his mother, Andromache (Evelyn Tsavalas)

Visually, it is an impressive production. The thrust stage with its apron seating closely approximates an ancient amphitheatre. The costumes glitter and contrast with the walls and fallen blocks of the city. The monologues are physicalized with big gestures helping to convey meaning to a non-Greek speaking audience.



Menelaus (Polyzois Patelis), the jilted husband of Beautiful Helen aka Helen of Troy (Gaelle Emvalomelos)


You can see this production, with its easily accessible English surtitles each weekend until the 7th April. With Greek Theatre not performed outside a University setting very often, it’s a good opportunity to see the work of one of the greatest Classical tragedians. Tickets can be booked online http://www.hellenicarttheatre.com.au/


This blog post first appeared on the St George and Sutherland Shire Leader website on March 20, 2019.

All Done – Off to Jupiter

img_3538A taste of my fiction… Ghosting Europa is a little sci-fi, a little science-fantasy, a little metaphysical and wholly made up.  After offering instalments throughout December the full story in a straightforward reading format is now offered in full under the above tab, Ghosting Europa.

I hope you like it. If you do, I’d be thrilled if you shared.

A wonderful 2019, to you all.

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4. Ghosting Europa

Happy New Year!

This is the last (4/4) instalment of my Christmas/New Year novella, Ghosting Europa.

At 11:55pm, Algernon Spires walked into the limelight and belted out a virtuoso performance. How could he have doubted himself? As he held the final note, the compere counted in midnight. Algernon’s voice boomed through the first explosion of colour in the sky and for the next fifteen minutes. The orchestra attempted to come in on top of him but he kept his note. All heads were upturned as rockets painted the sky. Few would notice and none question, the lights that flickered on and off in time with his vibrato in the old buildings of the Rocks. But dogs barked. A slight breeze picked up. The flickering lights spread to other old places and the occasional high-rise. The forlorn buildings on the lower north shore were most active. As the breeze gathered momentum, a wave of twinkling lights moved out across the suburbs of the city.

Onstage, Algernon’s entire body was a blur of oscillation. His focus was on the water. Droplets were spraying up from the surface, as if thousands of invisible pebbles were being thrown in. To anyone who chanced to look down, they would have taken it for rain. But there was no rain. The vibrato in Algernon’s voice intensified until finally all of the flickering lights went out, the wind died down, and he finished his note.

Deep on the watery bed the ammonites began to spin as each was bowled over by a direct, invisible strike. They rolled in their organised arcs, shedding mass as they transformed from weighty, white fossils to translucent, vital beings of electric blue radiation. They sparked together, energy finding energy, invigorating the spiral. It rose. It pulsed. It spun. It became a vortex, draining blue light through its focal point, whipping the waters around it into a maelstrom, intensifying its focal density as it turned. Then, bang! It was gone.

“You right, Buddy?” Arn asked Algernon. Algernon was cleaving onto Sheila as if he had the bends. His throat was a deep crimson-mauve above his tux. His face was red. He drained a two litre bottle of water then pointed in the direction of the Observatory.

“Good!” Arn took off, pushing his way through the crowds. “If we don’t hurry we’ll miss their landing,” he called.

“What?”

“The Ammonites went back to Europa.”

Sheila didn’t understand. Until this afternoon she ignored most of his talk of aliens. Now she wanted to know. On the way back to the theatre they had met him in the catchment. He began explaining that the Ammonites originated in Europa, the watery moon of Jupiter. Europa vibrates with the tension created by opposing gravitational forces – its own and Jupiter’s. Water pressure on Europa is constantly fluctuating. Life must compensate for the pressure changes. Ammonites evolved the many-chambered shell to do just this. Their spiral formed as a horn that produces the sound waves that guide them, like echolocation, he had said. It was as far as he got before they reached the theatre. It didn’t mean a lot to her. Now he continued.

“Jupiter inundates Europa with radiation energy. The Ammonites have evolved a coping mechanism for this too. Under intense water pressure they’re able to shed their physical mass down to just their impulses, their souls. Once they reduce to this electric blue impulse, they can travel through space and mass. They can spiral down infinitely in size to move through highly compressed matter – the inner-space environment of a single, sub-atomic particle – and then spiral out again infinitely to experience much lower compression of matter – the almost vacuum of outer-space. They play their radiated shell with virtuosity to travel across the universe. Without its music they can’t travel. Separated from their shells, they are bodiless souls, ghosts in need of a home.”

“Like real ghosts?”

“Yup.”

“Like poltergeist moving things around?”

“Just until they find a host body to…”

“Possess,” Sheila finished his sentence for him.

“Just like a Horror Movie, but they didn’t have a choice.”

“We’re going to the Observatory to see these ghosts?” she asked, hearing more disbelief in her voice than she felt. “Isn’t the sky a little too polluted tonight?”

“Up there,” he pointed, “not down low on the horizon where Jupiter hangs.”

They had been forced to slow their pace. Instead of dispersing a crowd had gathered at the Harbour railings on the far side of Circular Quay. An ambulance crew was attending to a couple of bodies newly pulled from the water. As they walked by, Algernon splintered away and joined the crowd milling around. He recognised the injured. They were Hyde Park dwellers. By the time Arn and Sheila caught up, they were pronounced dead. Alger tried to shepherd the other two away but not before they realised whose bodies were being wrapped. It clicked. Ammonite souls had been inhabiting Alger’s disenfranchised friends’ bodies. This journey to Europa took place with a couple more souls than was originally intended.  As the ambulance crew loaded the cadavers into the van, Alger warbled incoherently.

“They couldn’t wait anymore. They’re home-free,” Arn said.

“Do you call dead, free?”

“That’s just the human body. If they can discard their Ammonite shells, they don’t need their human ones.” Arn shrugged.

“What about the humans?”

Alger started warbling at her.

“Where are their souls?” she demanded of him.

“No bodies can be inhabited unless they agree, like a rental. Or leave their transpersonal chakra open. You know, the drug thing,” Arn proffered. The penny dropped.

She turned to the being masquerading as Alger. “Where’s Alger?” He grabbed her hand and together they jumped the railing into the harbour. They plummeted into the cool depths oblivious to any bystander who may have seen them. Their fossils glowed and their minds communicated.

“The only way we can experience your world as you do is in your bodies. It’s dangerous. Once our impulse leaves our shell it’s almost impossible to reinhabit it above the depths of your oceans. Many have been stranded here. Millennia have passed since the great receding of the waters.  It was easier then. But your world was even younger. Your kind hadn’t evolved yet.”

He waited a moment for this to sink in. Sheila was horrified. She knew that he wasn’t normal anymore but she hadn’t expected this. Was he dead? Whose impulse was communicating with her now? By impulse he meant his soul. But it wasn’t Alger’s soul. He was an alien. Alger was human.

“So much time has passed. My kind’s radiation has deteriorated despite our immortality. It’s our life spark – the way we travel, how we feel, our consciousness, our essence no matter what material entity we inhabit. It’s as essential as a highly pressurised environment for our movement between worlds.”

All she could think was that he was in Alger’s body! What were his intentions? She let go of his hands and immediately began paddling to retain their submerged depth. He could sense her ambivalence and appealed to the sense of wonder she had experienced that afternoon.

“We came here to explore this new world. We should have remained low but the shallows were so enticing with their sharper, technicoloured vibrations.”

She could understand that want. But there were ethical boundaries. Sheila felt the ribbing of the fossil at her neck with her hand. It was warm and heating up. She felt its static electricity and knew that somehow it was helping her respire. Whooshing the water around her she kept both her arms within her sight.

“That which you wear is empty, save for your own vibration. My kind were too eager to leave the nurturing pressures they arrived in. They lost their carapaces as they ascended. Their shells petrified into what you recognise as fossils, ammonites. So altered and weighty, the delicate vibration of their impulses could no longer bare their shells. They fell away to the ocean floor.”

Again he waited for a response from Sheila. Her mind was racing. Images and sounds of the last fortnight entered her mind. The field of fossils on the ocean floor, spirals of all sorts in the apartment at Arncliffe, Arn loading boxes of fossils into her car, reports of sightings of Alger at the nuclear facility in Sydney’s far south, street people diving into the harbour…

“Once the fossils had been irradiated and positioned they needed a means to leave the human bodies they were trapped in. A strong vibration like a beautiful song had to be produced that could open their borrowed physical senses and let their souls soar away.”

Alger’s voice! Foreboding gripped her.

“There have been too few, ripe carriers over the ages since we first arrived. My people have had to reinhabit bodies as often as you will take breaths in a lifetime and more. Those who couldn’t find a suitable body have haunted many dwellings waiting for one. Tonight we sent those bodiless spirits home.”

“We? You and Alger?” Sheila demanded.

“His body is an exemplary specimen, a meticulously honed tool. Without his incredible lung capacity, the strength of his diaphragm, the elasticity in his larynx, so many souls would be lost… It’s a pity for him he didn’t respect the life force he was given.”

“But your gain. Where is he and the two who died?” Sheila had to work hard to maintain herself at a stationary depth. Her waterlogged gown wasn’t helping.

“You must understand something about souls. A soul is fragile and vain. It has to be exercised and feted by the beauty around it. When it acknowledges simple sensory pleasures and has abstract thoughts it rises above physical need. All life inhabits matter for its own sake but when it begins to acknowledge that it does, a soul arises. Its aura emanates away from its material core and it experiences the higher states – music, love, laughter, reason. They allowed their souls to be reabsorbed by their physical bodies. They were already dead. Their sacrifice was inconsequential when you realise how many souls were saved. To save your people, wouldn’t you sacrifice the life of another, lesser being?”

“Give him back.” She paddled her hands and feet feverishly, losing her shoes.

“He may be fully absorbed by now.”

“You can’t hold onto his body forever.”

“I wasn’t planning to,” he replied with pervasive gravity.

“His memories are still alive,” she argued, adjusting her dress straps as they fell off her shoulders, hampering her movement.

“Yes. His love for you is compelling. Too compelling”

“Save him.” She was struggling.

“It would be very difficult.”

“You owe him.” Her head pounded.

“Once I’ve gone, he may not be able to collect the rent.”

“Then you’ll owe me.” In the silence that ensued, Sheila realised that Alger’s alien had formed an emotional attachment to her, aside from Alger’s. Was he expecting for her to pat him on the back and ask for another jaunt through the harbour before he left?

“Save him!”

“We will need a pressurised environment to do it. We cannot do it in the Harbour. We would risk transporting the dolphins that buoy up the human bodies. We need a small controlled tank, like the one in the Museum exhibit by Hyde Park. Arn will need help. Call your brother and come to the Museum. There are no guarantees that Algernon will survive my exodus.”

Sheila left him, surfacing quickly. Her head ached. She realised the folly of jumping into the Harbour in her evening dress. Finding her clutch by the railings, she was thankful her phone and keys were still inside. Arn was nowhere in sight. She didn’t wait for Alger-alien. He repulsed her. She needed to think.

If she got Alger back, who would he be? The addict?

It was months into the run of the show before she saw the extent of his chemical entrapment. He needed something to ground himself with after a performance and something to take him there before. He took something to sleep and something else to help him wake. Assuming that his body was able to cope with going clean, could two weeks of the strong, alien life force governing him be enough to block the chemical detour his physical body operated on? Assuming he wanted to get clean.

He was a constant source of her sleepless nights. When he didn’t come home after a performance she’d call her brother and they’d go looking for him. Whether he was gone a night or several days he would invariably turn up passed out somewhere public, somewhere he would be found – a park, a train station, public amenities. Then one morning he was found by accident when a car went through the façade of a condemned house. He was barely alive. An ambulance was called and he was hospitalised. He wasn’t ready for rehab. It was hard work. If he really intended to get clean he would have to give up being Algernon Spires, singing sensation, and Alger, everyone’s best mate. At least for a time.

But if he came back sober how would she know whether he was Alger the human or Alger the alien? What if he really was just a body kept alive by a foreign, alien soul? And could she go through with his depression if he returned to the state he had left in? She needed healing, herself. She had to face the probability that she would be bringing it all on herself again. Dread gulfed her. What was she doing? She would never again allow herself to be ensnared by the push and pull of his addictions.

Was it Alger who brought the alien to her or was it just that the alien needed her to implement his plan? What did the alien mean by Alger’s love for her was, “too compelling”? Why did he bother taking her out underwater, giving her such wondrous experiences? He didn’t benefit from it. Why bother breathing her to sleep? Why should he care? Why come home at Christmas? Why be so tender with his mother? Alger cared. Alger knew how much he had taken away from them. Alger knew how much he had hurt her. She finally understood why he left. Now, she needed to talk to someone who understood her, who would listen. She needed the old Alger.

Not two weeks after his return she was calling her brother in the middle of the night again. Why did the alien want Jason? Her brother was a school teacher and trained in first aid.  Could that have something to do with it? Jason didn’t need to be convinced, he’d been expecting something to go wrong ever since Alger had returned. She kept walking out the frustration of the last couple of years.

At the theatre she changed into her stage-crewing blacks, met her brother at the stage door and led him down to the Dungeon. Arn, changed for the occasion, was waiting for them by the grate. Together they entered the catchment, squeezed through the void between the sound proofing and the bedrock and made their way to the roof of the rail tunnel. Once they climbed down, Sheila realised a drop in the water level from the afternoon. Rail Corp really were hard at it.

They followed the feel of railway sleepers beneath their feet, backtracking via a railway exchange, towards Museum Station. The faint rattle of trains on the City Circle was disconcerting. They were walking straight towards it. The water level fell to a comforting sludge. Soon the sludge became mud, then rubble. Gradually, as they moved forward, a faint bead of light spread into a beacon. It was the lit platform of St James Station, just one stop short of their destination. Bollards over the tracks and the gentle round of moving escalators confirmed that this part of the City Circle was operating. So too, would Museum Station be. Bending low and keeping hard up to the embankment of the platform they moved from the darkness through the light and back into the dark of the tunnel. They strode quickly up the tunnel keeping the vibrating lines of steel on either side of them. They intended to feel an approaching train before they heard it and hoped that “limited service” meant fewer trains.

When they reached Museum, Arn retrieved his discarded pick from beneath the platform and led them through a manmade rent into the catchment under the road. Hopefully, by the time they were to return, the trains would have stopped for the night.

 

The Australian Museum

The Creatures of the Deep exhibition was unique. For the first time ever animals living in the deepest oceans could be exhibited alive. Until now, efforts to catch living, deep-sea fauna and bring it to the surface had failed. This kind of biota collapsed when removed from their highly pressurised ecosystems. Finally, the museum had at its disposal the technology to net and nurture deep sea creatures in pressurised tanks. Since the water had to be constantly refreshed and re-pressurised, the Museum floor had to be fitted with appropriate drainage in case something went wrong and the tanks imploded or the pipes burst. Tonight that drainage system served another purpose.

The glow from the tanks lit the exhibition hall and provided a pilot through the drainage grates into the catchment for Sheila, Arn and Jason to navigate by. Alger-alien and his handful of leased-bodied friends were waiting for them. Their pendants were glowing.  A couple of them removed the grates and helped the trio up into the exhibition hall. Alger-alien immediately took Sheila’s mobile phone, torch and pen from the bum-bag strapped to her waist. He put the torch in his mouth, displayed her number on the phone and indicated for her to draw its digits up his forearm as big as his arm would accommodate.

The Hyde Park aliens removed the lid from the largest tank and gingerly laid it on the floor. Mounting a ledge they surrounded the tank. Transparent, white sea-cucumbers lolling on the gravelly bottom were its unsuspecting, sole occupants.  One at a time, the hobo-aliens began humming in a fugue of varying keys. The first low and gentle notes sent ripples over the water’s surface. A higher pitch, a tenor, from an adjacent side of the tank turned their direction. Immediately they were driven back by the dramatic reverberation from a high soprano directly opposite the first voice. Swayed across by a baritone charge the ripples were pushed to complete a circle. One by one the alien occupiers untied the ammonites strapped to their necks and threw them in. Arn looked on.

“Why’re you the lazy one?” Jason asked him.

“I’m human!”

The swirling surface gained momentum. The humming became warbling. Alger’s bass register joined in as he mounted the ledge. The lower waters began to shift with the surface. One by one the fossils became translucent. Alger’s voice gained intensity and volume. A deep vortex began to form in the tank. It rushed around in great turbulence picking up the ground cover off the floor. The tank became an opaque, brown slurry. A flash of flickering blue light illuminated a shell circling close to the eye. An alien host jumped in. Warbling rebounded off the walls of the exhibition hall. Blue radiation erupted through the submerged body and through the shell. The body started to convulse: limbs contorted, spine arched out, head snapped back and forth. Spasm after spasm erupted through its human frame.

“You’re killing him!” Jason yelled, leaping up onto the ledge. He yanked the circling body over the edge of the tank and struggled with its dead mass until Sheila reached him. Together they dragged the body away. They laid him on the floor and pushed out as much water as they could before Jason began CPR.

The others continued their song, calming the waters to equilibrium. The sea cucumbers seemed unperturbed by the commotion around them but there was one less ammonite at the bottom. The surface of the water began to swirl again as humming turned to warbling. Arn was mesmerised.  The human host they’d just pulled from the water began to breathe on his own. He was exhausted and confused, but alive. Sheila and Jason sat him up against a wall and returned tank side.

The process was repeated for each of the aliens. Not all of the bodies revived as quickly as the first. Sheila had to learn CPR on the job. When only Alger’s guest remained, dread overwhelmed her. With each successive transport, the vortex moved slower and it took longer for the fossils to become massless. Alger’s voice was stretched even to his limits

“What if he can’t do it on his own?” she asked Arn over the din.

Arn didn’t answer. Distracted since the first man dived in, he was useless in reviving any of his colleagues and now all he could manage was short breaths – as if it were he who carried the burden of the sonic transportation.

Alger-alien’s warbling escalated into a thunderous crescendo when finally sparks broke through the sludgy wash. His submerged ammonite slowly materialised, electricity cracking away from it. It was his time. He took hold of the edge of the tank to pull himself up. His voice had to remain steady and strong until he jumped in. Poised for his entry, Arn leapt in ahead of him. Splash! Alger-alien shrieked. What was Arn doing? Spasms contorted Arn’s body. Sheila and Jason clambered to pull him out. His body kept whirling away from their grasp. Alger-alien shrieked repeatedly. Fear. Horror. Loss. Alger-alien was doubled over. Harrowing emotions were rising through his abdomen. What to do? Fishing Arn out took longer than the others. When they got him on the floor, both siblings worked on him.

Then Sheila remembered her ammonite. Removing it from around her neck, she threw it to Alger-alien. He dropped it in the water and began humming. The low vibration of his mantra rounded the hall like a meditation. It rang in their ears and pulsed through their heads. Arn was oblivious to everything. Jason banged hard on the older man’s sternum. He pushed and breathed for him. But Arn wasn’t coming to.

Alger-alien’s voice kept changing keys in quick succession and increasing volume as he tried to emulate the fugue of his lapsed choir of five. He warbled from bass to alto, from baritone to soprano and tenor in deafening succession. The windows tapped in their sills. They were pressed to buckle by the changing air pressure in the hall. Would they?

Plosh! Alger’s body was floating in the tank.

“Jason!” Sheila screeched. Her brother wasn’t moving fast enough. Arn wasn’t reviving. Jason was reluctant to give up on him just yet. Sheila ran, grabbed Arn’s pick, and smashed the tank. Water and glass exploded onto the floor. Algernon’s body washed out of the tank. She rolled it away from the debris, cleared his throat passage and banged his chest. His body jerked.

“We’ve gotta go.” The museum’s alarm system had been triggered. Jason pulled Sheila up, then checked on Algernon’s breathing. “He’ll live.” He fetched Arn’s pick and they left through the drain, entering the catchment.

The tiled tunnel of Museum Station echoed with the babble of waiting commuters. The vandals of the Museum couldn’t risk being seen. They waited for the train to come and go in the rented wall. It was travelling in the same direction they were. They crept along the brickwork burrow after it, knowing that as the subway was no longer a circuit, it would only stop a couple of times before it returned. They didn’t know of anywhere they could shelter when it did. They ran.

When the train stopped, they slowed. Had it reached St James? Was it changing tracks to head down to Martin Place? Would they be able to hear a change in its motion if it was coming back up? Would they feel its different vibrations on the sleepers and up through their feet? Yes, they could. It was still at a distance. Into the pitch they ran towards St James. Their sight overwhelmed by nothingness, the predictability of each sleeper beneath them, their only guide and solace. Plank to plank they flew. Subtle relief in glints flicked into the black void came glossing over Art Deco tiles before they realised that they’d run recklessly far into the station.

“Hey! Get off the tracks. Back up here!” A security guard was leaning over the platform escarpment. They were being motioned closer into the light. He reached down to pull Jason up. The surly guard was alone.

“Gotta death-wish? Trains are running.”

Taking hold of the guard’s hand, Jason strategically put both feet on the perpendicular rise of the platform. The guard was forced to lean back to stop from face-planting forward. Both men were locked in a hold maintained by levying their bodyweight in opposite directions.

“Easy up.”

But Jason didn’t. He let go instead. The guard fell backwards and he and Sheila bolted past the platform, still on the tracks, and into the sheltering blackness on the other-side.

Here the vibrations from the track had changed. The train was approaching. Its rumble grew with their every pace. Had it passed the exchange? If they could get there before it did, they could wait on the other side until it passed.

But, Jason slowed down and bent over.

“I’ve got a stitch.”

“Now?”

“C’mon.” She pulled him along.

Clap! Clap! Bang! Echoed down the tunnel as the train passed over the intersecting tracks. Its approach rumbled up their feet. They threw their torch beams up the brick walls looking for service doors or any kind of alcove they could shelter in. There was nothing, just shallow buttresses. Would they be enough? Madly wanting to block their ears against the barrelling roar they flattened their torsos to the wall on either side of the protruding brickwork. The train passed and kept passing and passing, spraying them with grease. Its wind drag teased their bodies away from safety. Peeling away, they snapped their heads back to the wall, once, twice. After each tiny release it was harder to stay true against the wall. Carriage after carriage screamed its own cry by. Finally, it was gone. They’d make it. The exchange was just up ahead. No more trains, just a sludgy tunnel. From there it was back up the ladder and they would be in the catchment by the theatre in no time.

Squeezing up through the drain into the Dungeon, they went to her office. She printed out the company list and madly started calling. There’s been an incident. Alger is in trouble. Call an ambulance to the Museum. Don’t mention any names. She knew his Hyde Park henchmen would need more than one ambulance. On the busiest night of the year, she had to make sure this distress message was responded to immediately. She showered, changed and waited for a phone call. It came. There’s been an accident. Would she mind coming into St Vincent’s to identify a patient? Relief – patient, not body. Jason drove her there. Yes, she was Mrs. Spires. No, she couldn’t identify the others. She never did learn Arn’s real name. She couldn’t help them with any personal information about him, for he never shared any.

She spent the night waiting to see if Alger would pull through. Waiting to see who would wake – the alien or the human. At some point she fell asleep. When she woke, his respirator had been removed. ‘Nil by mouth’ was written on the whiteboard strip that also bore his doctor’s name. He had a drip in his arm. His ribs were bandaged. His skin was peeling. There was bruising from his neck down to his chest and he was in a heavy sleep. She drew the curtains around his bed.

When Jason arrived midmorning, the curtains were still cocooning the bed.  His sister was asleep in a courtesy chair. Algernon hadn’t woken. Reports of the museum vandalism were all over the media. Most of the others had woken up. All were suffering from exhaustion and treated for decompression sickness. They claimed not to remember what happened. No hint of drugs was found in their systems although they were known for substance abuse. Had they been checked for radiation poisoning, a different story may have emerged. But they weren’t. Their family members were being located.

When a police officer arrived to check on Algernon’s ability to answer questions, it was Jason who spoke with them. Yes, that was his sister’s phone number on Algernon’s arm. Yes, they were estranged. His sister was spending New Year’s Eve at a house party at his flat. He drove her into the city when the call came from the hospital. He asked them what his in-law/outlaw brother-in-law was mixed up with at the museum. He never knew him to be a vandal before. Come to think of it, his bother-in-law didn’t much like water either.

The officer responded to Jason’s chatty openness. No-one could make sense of what happened to the exhibit. One possibility was that the glass tank imploded under pressure. The sea-cucumbers had all died and so had Arn. Arn’s ammonite was around his neck when they found him. There was no mention of any other ammonite fossil in the debris. Jason took the officer’s calling card, assured him that he would pass it on and waved him off.

“Thank you,” Sheila said as she got up and pushed the curtain aside to make room.

“D’you think Arn made it?” Jason asked her.

“Reached Europa?”

Alger-alien’s words came back to her. Would she sacrifice a lesser life to save her people? Was he referring to the sea-cucumbers or Arn? She shivered.

“Who knows? He can’t exactly, ‘phone home’.”

“Poor bugger.”

But Arn was free. As free as a nautilus navigating through cool, churning waters. Awed and humbled by the sights and sounds that he could explore and the companions he could finally, fully relate to, he burst into song. Whooshing himself gustily through the extra sub-terrestrial waters beneath Europa’s icy ocean caps, he spared not a thought for those he’d left back on Earth. Life was good.

“Is Spatchcock gonna be okay?”

“Looks like.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Depends on who wakes up.”

“My bro-in-law the alien. Now, there’s a conversation starter.”

“That won’t happen.”

“And if it’s Alger?”

“I don’t know . . . It depends. . . ”

“You don’t need to go through all that shit again, Sis. None of us do.” Jason eyed Algernon’s drip.

“It’s just saline. He’s suffering from exhaustion and a severe case of the bends. They want to give him a psychological assessment.”

“Glad they said it, not me.”

Jason left with promises to check in on them soon. Over the next couple of hours Algernon started shifting around, half opening his eyes and drifting back into sleep. Sheila dozed on and off, happy to prolong the moment when she would learn who her vigil had been with. It early afternoon before a nurse came in and forced the situation.

“It’s a beautiful day,” she said and pushed open the ward curtains. Light flooded Alger’s bed. He winced and turned away from it, taking Sheila’s hand with him. Looking at what he held, he turned back to the light. Tears streamed down his eyes.

“You’re here,” he rasped, fire burning his throat as he spoke. He pulled her face close to his and gazed into her eyes. He saw no judgement there, just expectation. Her warmth gave him courage.

“I love you,” he offered.

“I know.”

He was hoping for more. He waited. If she voiced it aloud she would come undone. She was going to be cautious but didn’t want to close any deals without setting the terms.

“I quit my job.”

“I know,” he said, slowly running his fingers over her cheeks, her chin, her lips.

“How much of the last couple of weeks?

“Everything.”

“Oh!”

“You couldn’t tell the difference?”

“He was you, A broken you. A messed up, weird kind of you. He was a ‘you’ that I thought I could put back together… Your Mum knew. She never had hope that you could go clean. I wanted him to be you so badly.”

“I meant the hair…lank, old man, the Salvos couture, just the look for my next casting call,” he teased her.

She sat on the mattress beside him. Shoulder to shoulder, leg to leg, they held hands. He pressed her hand against his lips. Extending her left arm before them with his own beside it, he splayed out their fingers. A white line high around his ring finger indicated where his wedder had sat.

“I never took mine off.”

“You left.”

“I’m back.”

“So it would seem. I was going to get around to remodelling mine.”

“Not with sea fossils, I hope.”

“No, they have a better ring around the throat. I can’t recall where I put them.”

“They’re in that little trinket box in the top drawer of the dresser.”

“What a nosey alien you were.”

“I was hoping that you’d wear them again.”

Sheila responded with caution, “I can’t go through the darkness again.”

Algernon relied with equanimity, “I promise, you never will.”

Sheila remained silent. She couldn’t answer straight away. Her life was about to change again and she had to digest it. Algernon held his breath. Any reasoning woman would say no. She was such an incredibly strong woman. She deserved more than what he had put her through. She started to cry. It would be okay if she said no. He pressed kisses on her tears. He couldn’t love her less.

“Yes.”

 

3. Ghosting Europa

Merry Christmas!

This is the next (3/4) instalment of my Christmas/New Year novella, Ghosting Europa

Christmas

Cruising along the highway with the windows down, the wind blowing their hair, Alger sang, “Country roads take me home” all the way to Brighton. The bulbous shell around his neck was glowing like a Christmas ornament. She realised that he never took it off, just wore it beneath his clothes most of the time. Its soft warm light was contained around his throat. As they walked into the house, Sheila instinctively turned the hallway light on. A split second later his fingers covered hers as he flicked the switch off again.

“But how will you see? I’ve made quite a few changes in here.” The brightness of the shell didn’t compensate for electric lighting.

He took her hand and placed it on his chest, then swept the rest of her up into his arms. She didn’t expect this. She felt the vigorous beating of his heart as well as the purring he had been putting her to sleep to emanating from his chest. Again, she absorbed the undulations of his lungs as his chest grew and then contracted. It was a different rhythm to any she had felt from him before. She didn’t feel at all tired. His diaphragm was producing a warbling sound, unique from the vibrato that his vocal chords propelled onstage. It made her more alert. Somehow, he was using these waves to navigate through the house in the darkness. They bumped into nothing even though the living room posed a labyrinth for them.

“Sheila, zat you? You’ve gotta wipe the answering machine. Gotta go. I’m doing graveyard. See’ya Boxing Day.”

“Sure.” Sheila cringed. Alger had stopped abruptly and was looking at her quizzically. Their combined weight in the same footfalls wouldn’t stop the floorboards from creaking hello.

“We have tenants, now.”

She was grateful that he couldn’t say anything. With Christmas tomorrow, at least they’d have the house to themselves. Alger’s thrumming slowly started up again as he took the next step forward.

It was mid-afternoon when they were woken by heavy banging on the front door.

“Sheila, open this door. Your car’s in the driveway.” Her mum.

“I want to see my son!” His.

She reached for her robe. He ran for the shower. A trail of airy skin cells wafted after him. The mums came in with beef pancakes and a lamb roast. His father followed with a bottle of scotch.

“Since when’ve you stopped answering calls? And dusting?” Her mother poked her in the chest.

“D’you think we don’t watch the news?” His mother sent her a withering glance. “Has he been eating? He looks like a ghost.” They brushed passed her and set up camp in the kitchen.

Bristling, her mother began, “Of course he’s been eating! Do you think my daughter would let him starve? Honestly darling, these God-forsaken hours that you’ve endured the last few years should stop now. If you’re forced to work so hard to pay the mortgage, all by yourself, that you don’t get time to dust, then you’re working far too long. And you’re not charging the tenants nearly what your place is worth. You’re never here – they have the place to themselves, at least get them to vacuum. I’ve always said you have to be pickier with the company you keep. You’re going old before your time…”

If Mrs Spires heard a word she showed no sign. Distracted and pathetic, not seeing her son in the last week had taken its toll. Mr Spires turned away from Sheila’s mother and held his tongue. The doorbell rang again. It was her brother, Jason.

“Merry Christmas!” He kissed her on the cheek. “Where’s Spatchcock? You lost your phone?” He handed Sheila a large plastic container. “The meat’s already marinated. Got any heat beads? I’ve left the Weber round the back.” He barged into the kitchen and stopped short. The rest were sitting around the table. “I told you I’d handle them first.”

“You can’t tell us when we can see our son.” His father rose.

“The situation calls for…” Jason began.

“Hello, is it me you’re looking for?” Alger crooned from behind a pair of dark sunglasses. He was dripping water onto the carpet. His mother inhaled. His hair was nearly all white. He was rake thin.

Sheila thought that he had gained a little weight since he’d returned, regardless, he no longer filled out his bathrobe. It wasn’t for lack of food. He ate all the time judging from the number of take-away orders making their way to his dressing room. Of course, Arn was in there too, but still… Alger was never overweight but neither was he ever bony. His father approached him, faltering as he placed his hand on his son’s back. He winced.

“Heatbeads, Sis.”

The Huas left them alone.

“What’s wrong with your eyes?” His mother pulled his sunglasses away. Immediately they began to run. She stared at them. Tears trickled from her own. He embraced her.

“That’s alright, Mama. That’s alriiiiiight!” he sang to her softly, lulling her with the gentle rhythms of his chest. She held him for a long time and then abruptly broke away.

Throughout the rest of the afternoon, Mrs. Spires made no attempt to speak with her son. She just watched him. She watched the way he moved, the way he walked. She watched her husband’s bungled attempts to start a conversation with his son. She watched their son nod a lot and stuff his mouth with food. She watched him shelter in the sanctuary of Jason Hua’s incessant chatter. She watched him burn sausages and refuse scotch. She baulked at the wordless exchanges he shared with Sheila. By sunset she had had enough.

As she left through the front door she asked Sheila, “Where’s my son?”

“Eating chops out the back.”

“No. You know it too. You’re wearing this shell-thing and playing house,” she flicked the white, spiral pendant below the base of Sheila’s neck. It glowed with his warmth. It was him. He had given it to her last night.  Now it was hers. Instinctively, Sheila raised her hand to protect it.

Mrs. Spires gasped. “If that’s my son, where are your rings?”

Sheila clasped the pendant. She had taken her rings off a long time ago.

“What is he?” She glared at her daughter-in-law.

Sheila was pulled in a step by Alger’s long spindly arm around her waist. They hadn’t noticed his stealthy approach. Now he cradled her against himself and with his free hand he waved an offer of a half-eaten lamb chop at his mother. She stormed out. His father sidled up from behind.

“When he’s able to hold an adult conversation, love, bring him to the house.” Mr. Spires clasped her hands, nodded at his son, and left. Her mother and brother went soon afterwards with reminders to call if they needed anything.

Rain fell gently through the twilight. Alger took Sheila by the hand and led her outside. They stood together, their chins arched up, their faces catching droplets. The rain couldn’t wash away his mother’s words. They were palpable. Trying to leave them at the door they began walking. Slowly at first, they soon gained traction. Pitter-patter became pulse. When they reached the beach, it was dark and pouring. No presence of the wind yet, he stopped her on the sand. He took his t-shirt off and then her blouse. Leaving the rest of their clothes on the shore they dove into the water.

Swimming away from the enclosure, they headed out through the vast, opaque waters into the heart of the bay. They matched each other stroke for stroke as they tore away from the shore. The water had been warming up in the summer sun but was now cool again. As it lapped against their foreheads, the stress of the last few hours washed away. She tired first and allowed herself to float, then tread water while she watched him. Her husband hadn’t liked the water. She wasn’t even sure if he could swim. Was it him who plunged and rose in a circle around her? They didn’t have a lot of free time to go to the beach before. She could only remember their reef trip now. Perhaps he had gotten over it? Perhaps it was the substance abuse that made him avoid it? Had he left that behind? She hadn’t seen him touch anything since he’d returned, not even scotch.

Each time he drove down through the water he would take longer to resurface. She soon realised a pull, like a rip, over her body. It was drawing her away. She allowed herself to be carried. The rip took her in an arc and brought her back and around. He plunged and bobbed up through it. She went round and round in smaller, gentler arcs until she was held in the centre of a circular thrall. Tiny bubbles began breaking the surface in front of her. She felt their effervescence through her toes and tingling their way up over her calves, knees, thighs and torso. She splayed her fingers through them and wriggled her body over them. Then a short, dull nudge swept by her knees. Then another. And another. Taking a deep breath, she pushed herself under. The pendant he had given her glowed, lighting the water.

Silver plated glomesh quivered as schools of fish swam in streams before her. Yellow fins swept away rolling pink lustres as rippling stripes ascended into view. Broader bodies waddled past with their smaller families in the wake of flickering spritely pencil line populaces. Different communities overtook and intersected each other’s trajectories while they negotiated the subtly spiralling waters. Each clan had its own unique markings and tone. She could reach out and touch them. So many beautiful fish. So close. They swam in concert around her. They didn’t question why they did, they just lived. She joined them.

Reluctantly she came up for air. The water went dark again. Looking over the surface she realised that she was in a whirlpool defined by distending arcs of frothy wake somehow of his making. She felt heat against her throat. It was his pendant. He surfaced in a bound through the focus of the vortex. His torso was vibrating. The rip brought her into him and they dove under together. This time she descended deeper into the maelstrom. He led her farther down, still. She saw different fish. Bigger fish. Dolphins. They all circled her. No, him. His torso was oscillating. Abruptly he stopped it. Pressure popped in her ears. He began again, orchestrating the waters. The rip changed direction. The fish started moving away. She was shot up to the surface, followed by a dolphin. Then another. Then him. He was breathless. Taking hold of the dolphins’ dorsal fins, they were hurdled through the wake of the swirl. Clinging on to the moment they held tightly all the way in to the shallow shore.

At home he cleared the fridge of leftovers.

 

The Second Week Begins

The next morning, stuck in traffic, Sheila had no need of a radio. He sang her a litany of songs that had meant so much to them. If he was not Algernon how could he know them all?

His mother! Her words haunted her. He had to be Alger. But they hadn’t had a conversation yet. Would they ever? She had so many questions. Something had happened to him. What she understood from their swim was that he communicated in sound waves with the fish, like the fish. His emotions and needs were conveyed by the pulsing of his diaphragm, larynx and vocal chords but not in human speech. His language was wordless. Whatever had happened had taken away his ability to speak but not his memory, emotions or understanding. He coupled his memories and feelings with songs that had evoked those same emotions. No longer able to form his own sentences, he borrowed lyrics that conveyed his sentiment.

“I’ll stop right now, but I’m stopping with you.” He was bobbing up and down on his seat to a Guetta song. She didn’t realise until he repeated himself, banged on the dash and pointed to the sidewalk that he meant for her to stop the car. Arn was back on duty, waving his placards. Time to go, was a new slogan by the look of it. She pulled over. Algernon jumped out and went around to the boot. He tapped it and yodelled loudly at her. Sheila popped it. Arn pushed his shopping trolley there.

“Just two boxes today,’ Arn said. Algernon loaded them.

“Of what?”

“Ammonites, of course.” His hand went to his throat. He wore a different shell to the one she first saw him wearing. The chambers of this one were enclosed in a perfect, white bulbous spiral. Like the one around her neck.

“Forgive me for thinking mine was special,” she said more to herself.

“Is he singing New Year’s Eve?” Arn was leaning in through the open car door.

“On the Harbour? Yes. David’s still sick.”

David’s illness was freakish. More, the way he got sick was freakish. He was washed overboard the Manly ferry. Apparently, the waters got choppy of a sudden in the middle of the Harbour. It took a while to fish him out. He caught a chill that deteriorated into laryngitis and possible pneumonia.

“Saturday, then,” Arn said and resumed his post. When Algernon got back in the car he was wearing an ammonite too.

“What are you going to do with them?” She asked, frustrated. He warbled what she intuited to be an apology. He was silent after that. She noticed ammonites on the bus shelters advertising the Creatures of the Deep exhibition. Apparently, they were pre-historic fossils. As they approached the intersection by Hyde Park he broke out in song, “Stop right now. Thank you very much!” This time she did. He stacked the boxes on top of each other and ran through the shrubbery into the Park. She could hear him yodelling as she pulled away. By the time she left the traffic lights the human denizens of the Park began converging on him from the hedges and benches.

The rain continued to fall that week. She and he established a new routine. In the morning they would stop by Arn’s to pick up boxes. Arn would stay at his post on the footpath and she would continue with Algernon to Hyde Park where he would disappear with them. He’d arrive at the theatre in time for an ice-cold shower before getting into make-up. At night the two of them drove home. Arn stayed away from the theatre. During the week, photos of Algernon bathing in the Hyde Park fountains and various waterways in Sydney surfaced on social media. There was even footage of him at the nuclear facility in the city’s south. At work, the novelty of his return had worn off and most stayed away from the number one dressing room.

 

New Year’s Eve

The City of Sydney was celebrating. Lights lit the canopies of trees in the park, vertical banners flapped high above the streets, a flotilla of boats was on the Harbour, a greater police presence was on the streets, and a limited train service returned to the City Circle. At night thousands of Sydneysiders would flock to the Harbour foreshore to watch the fireworks bring in the New Year. Private parties were hosted in high rise buildings and on rooftops of public buildings. The Sydney Observatory had a prime position, situated by the south-west pylon of the Harbour Bridge. It would host its annual New Year’s Eve Gala. Arn claimed to be invited.

That morning Arn shaved his beard, gelled his hair and wore a tuxedo. His white pendant hung under his bow tie. He received wolf-whistles from passing traffic with royal aplomb. Sheila would have driven past him if it wasn’t for his “runaway” trolley hurtling at her car. He looked decades younger. When she slammed the brakes, he abandoned the trolley and jumped into the back. For the first time, Arn entered the Theatre Royal through the Stage Door and watched the show.

A full company meeting was called in the auditorium after the matinee. Sheila announced her resignation. Nerida would step into her shoes for the tour. David was on the mend and was on track to open in Brisbane. It was no surprise and a relief to some that the new and creepy Algernon wouldn’t continue. Sheila cited family concerns as the reason for her sudden departure. Everyone understood her meaning. After more than five years working together and living life around show times, they were more than friends, but not quite family.

Alger was back and determined to be clean it seemed. She decided to dedicate time to his healing. Surely if he was able to sing, his ability to talk and use language could be restored. She missed him. She missed his humour and his insights. She missed the in-control him, sorely. He had been her ballast and her sounding board. They walked through life’s banalities, a team, and stood by through each other’s challenges. They were on the pulse of each other’s needs. If at times, the borrowed power her role afforded her needed tempering, it was Alger who did it.

She pushed her team hard and herself even harder. Skipping meals and overtime were standard with her. The bump-in demanded it. It was a gruelling, six week ordeal where carpenters, riggers, electricians, stage-mechanists, sound technicians and computer programmer-operators had to be co-ordinated before the performers, orchestra, pyrotechnics and costume and make-up departments arrived. Algernon would finish in the rehearsal space, get dinner and bring it to the theatre. He would make sure Sheila stopped and ate and then waited for her to finish so they could go home.

It was 11pm on the last Saturday night of the bump-in when the stage was finally ready, or so they thought, for the first technical run through on the following Monday. Then, they tested the candelabras. Folded down on their tracks and at rest in the wings, they were programmed to travel onstage at a particular musical queue. It sounded. They were off, fanning up and moving onstage. Then one stalled. It bucked and stopped. Pop! Something burnt. Smoke distended up from the joins in the floor panels. There was a black out. Torches lit, Sheila wasn’t allowing anyone to go home. They’d been there since 9am but she had to get to the bottom of it that night. The floor had to be ripped up, the problem found and the cable replaced as far as she was concerned, before they left. She wouldn’t know whether she’d have to call the carpenters back in tomorrow until after the floor had been re-laid. The floor panels had to be fitted seamlessly and repolished so that the show-piece remote-controlled boat could glide along its hard-glossed surface as smoothly as if it was on water. She had to know tonight.

The crew were exhausted. It would take hours to sort out. She locked horns with the Head Mechanist and the Head Electrician. They argued to come in tomorrow, their scheduled day off. But if she had to have panels cut, sanded and polished, the rehearsal schedule would be pushed back and encroach upon the previews. Out of nowhere, Alger appeared onstage with a couple of slabs of beer. The tension dissipated. The floor was pulled up. The electrical fault located and a plan of action was in place for the morning. The previews went ahead as scheduled.

Until the show opened she was running on adrenaline. Once the set had been installed and the electrical wiring and programming had been carried out, the physical movements of the stage crew had to be mapped out. The stage beyond the draped wings was an ants’ nest of activity. To offer the same show, performance after performance, meant plotting the whereabouts and tasks performed by each flyman, LX crew, stage mechanist, prop person and dresser throughout the performance. Each musical queue would set into motion a human chain reaction that would transform the setting and the performers within minutes, sometimes even seconds. Safety in timing was paramount. A high threshold for stress was required to pull it all off seamlessly. Yet it didn’t compare with the expectations levelled on the cast, especially the headliners. They had to be perfect.

Months of preparation were culminating in one evening that would secure the tempo of all the others that followed it, opening night. The journey began with auditions for the performers and musicians, casting calls for the leads, followed by intensive timetabling of rehearsals, sound checks, costume calls, technical rehearsals, publicity calls, interviews and previews. A barrage of advertising assailed all public platforms of communication – web browsers, social media, radio, TV, newspapers, magazines, sides of buses, backs of taxis, bus shelters and train platforms. The city was being told something wonderful was about to be offered to them – a caress of music and imagination that would transcend their mundane existence, a magic that would hold them under its spell long after they had left the theatre.

Would the production be able to live up to the hype? Would Algernon?

When the front-of-house curtain dropped at the end of the opening night performance it ushered in a moment of silence. A particular, familiar, moment of silence. That moment of expectation where time froze. Where everything froze. When the entire company concentrated on what they wanted to hear. Then it came. It erupted through the auditorium. They’d won.

When the curtain fell again there was an outpouring of hugs, kisses and back-patting on-stage as the entire company converged there. More would follow at the opening night bash. When Sheila met Algernon in his dressing room, he was already out of make-up. Euphoric, his eyes lit up with a Cheshire grin when they met hers. He pulled her inside and bolted the door. They were late for the party.

Today, as the company headed out for their “Farewell Sydney” lunch, she and Algernon met Arn in the Dungeon. Determined to learn more about the new Alger, Sheila had brought a swimsuit to work and joined them as they removed their outer garments and slid through the grate.

The water level by the Theatre had dropped off to a muddy slush. Sheila regretted leaving her shoes in the dungeon. The slippery rubble under her feet was uneven and sharp. By the light of her torch and the glowing ammonite at her neck Sheila could see. The new concrete, sound-proofing wall had been erected but it didn’t form a proper seal with the surrounding bedrock. Single file they were able to squeeze through a gap and into the bed of the Tank Stream. Hemmed in between encroaching concrete buttresses and monolithic rock on one side of them and the repaired, brick railway tunnel on the other they trudged along single file. Faint echoes of distantly moving trains and dredging pumps could just be heard.  Soon the brickwork merged into the bedrock. They were at a dead end. Arn began to climb using the uneven surface of the rock to assist his ascent onto the tunnel roof. Once there he fell through it with a splash. The break in the brickwork was fresh and inconspicuous to maintenance crews.  Alger followed and gave Sheila a hand up. Luckily, the water in the railway tunnel was waist deep.  No trains would be travelling through this part of the track anytime soon.

Arn fussed through the water looking for something, straightening with concentrated effort. Algernon joined him in extending a ladder from the tracks to the hole in the ceiling.

“Our way back,” Arn said.

They waded along the railway line almost all of the way to Circular Quay, veering off into the catchment system through another conveniently rented wall just before the rail tracks emerged above ground.

Sheila was surprised to see others in the catchment. More so when their chests warbled audibly. Headed in the same direction through the now-flowing water, the strangers waited for them to catch up. They too, were wearing ammonites. Their call glided to and fro over the water through the old brick canal. Algernon responded. There were others further along. They were all carrying boxes of ammonites. Boxes marked Chemhaz and stamped with Australia’s Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation’s logo. Sheila and Arn remained silent while the rest communicated. Light penetrated the darkness as they neared the end of the tunnel. Sheila thought she recognised the others as the hobos from the park. Algernon seemed to know them well. Was he instructing them? Allowing her eyes to adjust to the brighter light she approached the circular mouth the light was flooding through, feeling like a caver. Below a precipice, the harbour was just before her. The shoreline opposite appeared suburban taken in from her vantage point but she knew roughly where they were.  Arn began organizing the ammonites into netted drawstring bags. He handed each man two before they dove into the harbour from what would appear to be a retaining wall. Beyond the rush of water gushing away from their canal, a school of dolphins frolicked in the harbour.

Algernon took Sheila firmly by the arms, smiled into her eyes and leapt into the Harbour. He drove down hard through the cold and pulled her along. Her ears popped. She could feel the ammonite around her neck heating up as they dropped. Achieving a nauseating depth they stopped. He placed his palms over her ears and gently pumped. Conscious that his Hyde Park cohorts were stealthily slipping away, he took her by the hand and wracked a crenelated stroke through his body. Hers followed suit. They moved forward in the direction the others had disappeared through. Alger was confident in the way and they quickly caught up. Strangers in this environ, the group was soon escorted by a pair of curious dolphins.

Sheila kept her mouth closed and swallowed away the pressure in her ears as they swam on. The farther they went, the less her need to even the tension in her head or work so hard to maintain her body at the depth they were moving through. By the time she realised that she should surface for air, her head had stopped feeling heavy and she actually didn’t feel the need to breathe. Still, she thought that she should go up. Stopping, they quickly lost sight of the others.

Don’t be frightened.” The phrase entered her head as a feeling, not a sound. He held his breath but his diaphragm was pulsing. He was speaking!

Feel the wonder of my world,” he seemed to be saying. He pulled her forward. She felt the coolness in the water she was slipping through. It was washing away her tension and inviting her to move through it. Why didn’t she need to breathe? She felt the vibration of his diaphragm entering her chest. It was amplified through her throat by the ammonite. He urged her forward.

“Close your eyes.”

She did. Her diaphragm pulsed. She sensed movement around her. The water was alive. It was trickling in patterns, in dappling shades and in broad, adagio fields. Fish! Many different schools of fish! Denser textures of movement vibrated in her throat. Tiny schools played on her vocal chords. The allegro pace of looser patterns, medium-sized fish, rung around her larynx. The dolphins were close by, she sensed them in her lungs. He was there of course, andante, pacing beside her. She couldn’t open her eyes, she didn’t want to risk losing the tantalising sight of her respiratory system. She urged herself forward and felt the sea peel back over her entire body. Then she barrelled back. Up, down, sideways and diagonally she tried out her new gait. She felt free. She splurged through the depths purchasing every rhythm and motion the sea had to offer.  Lost in her reverie she lately realised that he was gone. Surfacing would be easy now. If she wanted to.

“This way,” he called through her mind. Opening her eyes, she was enveloped by the murky blur. She closed them again.

“Over here.”

She couldn’t see him or hear him but urged herself to follow. His signal was faint now, diminished by distance. She felt her ribs contract and expand and coil. She sped through the waters navigating the seascape, acknowledging its quilted amplitudes until she lost his andante field again.

“Where are you?” she demanded.

“Here.”

She opened her eyes and looked around. Just below was the ocean floor. A plethora of phosphorescent ammonites lay there arranged in a tightly coiled spiral. Its expanse was vast, beyond her vision. She saw the men from the tunnel adding to the formation, fitting more in and disappearing into the darkness just metres above. Overhead, she could sense more dolphins.

“Where are you?” she asked again.

She felt a small spinning motion in front of her. She opened her eyes to an ammonite hovering just before her face. She tried to swat it aside but her arms weren’t moving.

“I’m just here.”

She closed her eyelids. He was so close, but where?

“Here.”

She opened them again. The ammonite began spinning as if in response. It looked similar to his shell but transformed, disembodied in its own exoskeleton. It was no longer calcified like the fossil she thought it to be. It was translucent, containing the sea in a glowing white membrane flecked with electric blue veins. She needed to see her own. Belatedly, she realised a feeling of static tingling through her body. It had been with her almost imperceptibly, a low frequency drone, throughout this swim. Now in her stillness she understood its veracity. But she couldn’t see her ammonite. Looking too far down at the sea floor she turned a somersault and then another. Where were her legs? Her arms? Her body! She felt hot. She panicked. She wanted to breathe. She wanted to surface. The drone magnified. It engulfed her. She willed herself to surface. She felt the pressure all around and through her change and erupt over her ribs. What she thought were her ribs. She took off vertically. A heaviness descended on her body as she ascended. The rhythms of water-life receded the higher she rose and her velocity slackened.

She no longer sensed dolphins swimming above her. But they were there. In an instant her body felt foreign, burdensome, lame. She had no control. She was sinking. She felt a swelling in her head, a knock, a bump, and immediately a firm cushioning, buoying her neck towards the light. Her body dragged after it. A dolphin was beside her. She reached for its dorsal fin. They jetted up. Inertia was threatening her consciousness. Breaking the surface, her head erupted. She gulped mouthfuls of air. She felt for the fossil at her neck. It was hard and hot. Her skin around it was red and flaking. Running her hands over her chest, she realised that she was peeling all over.

Alger surfaced through a spiral of bubbles a moment later, a dolphin beside him. His ammonite was glowing. She thought she saw a blue vein flicker over it and over him. The creature and the ammonite.

However he did it, she had done it too. Bizarre. She had swum as an ammonite.

The Dolphins bore them both back through the Harbour. Under and over the waves, the looming skyline drew brought to mind their commitments. If they were to make make-up in time they needed to hurry back to the theatre.

They surfaced under the historic wooden pier that housed both the Sydney Dance and Sydney Theatre Companies. Why here? Was here, practical or personal? Why this pier? Did it conceal a short cut to the Tank Stream? Or did he remember its significance for them? Did he direct the dolphins there? How was any of this possible? Could he always do this? Even back then?

They had met in the pier café. She was crewing for the Dance Company while he was rehearsing at the Theatre. Regardless of being the only ones in the café their lunch orders were mixed up. She was given his sesame seed bun instead of her chia seed one. She was letting loose on the waiter when Alger appeared with her plate. He was happy to swap with her if she was with him. She paused a little too long. He promised that he hadn’t spat in it. But how did he know that she hadn’t spat in his, she had countered. He didn’t, he assented. She was fine for him to have her order. She would brush the sesame seeds off his. No, he insisted she have her order. No, she maintained, it was fine. He slid into the chair beside her, picked up the burger bun in front of her and spat in it.

“Now we have to swap.” He gloated.

“Really?” She picked up the bun in front of him and spat as well. He grabbed the burger she spat in and ripped out a mouthful. She followed suit with the other, dropping her jaw as low as she could while she chewed.

“I can think of more creative ways of sharing saliva with you.” He had laughed.

Now she looked at the man treading water in front of her. Was he remembering this moment too? How would she know if he was? Then he spat at her, straight in the face and laughed.

 

Sydney Harbour Fireworks

Ravenous after the show that night, she and Algernon, downed an entire roast beef with gravy and baked vegetables, two trays of lasagne and a Peking duck with special fried rice.  Arn thought they’d be hungry. Maybe he should have gotten another extra-large tray of rice? Algernon had to keep his strength up for the exodus after all.

Once dinner had been shovelled down the three of them were picked up by a limousine and driven to the Opera House forecourt. VIPs, they were escorted through the crowd to the especially erected pavillion stage. The rain had stopped and Sydney’s biggest annual party was in full swing. Algernon was due to sing just before the midnight countdown commenced. He seemed nervous. The performance would be a highlight of a national telecast. He paced across the landing of the steps to the stage. There were hundreds of thousands of people along the foreshore. He looked across the harbour scanning the low rise dwellings and high rise towers of the lower north shore. His lips softly expelled staccato clicks his tongue created on the roof of his mouth. On the south side, the buildings around the Quay stood in anticipation. The bridge was still. He tapped his security pass in quick repetition across his knuckles. He searched the sky. He took deep breaths. It was the first time he seemed out of water before a performance.

“Don’t worry buddy. They’ll all be here.” Arn tried to soothe him.

 

 

The final instalment to be…must be New Years Day, of course!

 

2. Ghosting Europa

This is the next (2/4) instalment of my Christmas/New Year novella, Ghosting Europa

Her jaw dropped. “What have you done to my wall?”

It was Arn! He squeezed through the fissure and entered the Dungeon followed closely by a bedraggled waif with his head hung low. It was surreal.

“I didn’t do all of that. It’s the Tank Stream. It’s being fed by the stormwater system and it’s filled the subway. Dredging’s going on. They’re using old pipes to help with the flushing. One broke.”

“One pipe couldn’t have caused this kind of damage,” Bob jeered.
“It was helped by dodgy sound proofing, trains rattling past, and the rising water.” Arn addressed Sheila, “They’ve skimped on the cement mix. This sound barrier thing you’ve got happening is cracking all around.”

Sheila glared at him.

“Come, I’ll show you.”

Leaving the waif behind, Arn led Sheila and Bob back the way he came. They entered what was supposed to be an airlock channel. It was more canal than channel now. They waded through knee deep water to get to another rented, concrete wall. The old brick subway could be seen beyond. The water level was deeper in there and unbelievably had ripples – tell-tale signs of a current. The dredging work down the tunnel carried up to them in hammering, hollow sounds, confirming Arn’s words.

Sheila snorted at Arn, “So you swam to the Harbour from Pitt St?”

“Just like I toldya I would. No reason for stories.”

She had seen enough. When they returned to the Dungeon sandbags were in place. A pile of towels had been left for them on the crash mat and a mech was mopping up. Nerida was on the ball. Carmello, his well-wishers and Arn’s waif were missing.

“Shoes and socks off,” she ordered and handed them each a towel.

“I think you can start putting this production to bed.”

“Not until the fat lady sings, Bob. We have phone calls. D’you know how much money this show makes the State in tourism? If I have to cancel the final fifteen performances my bosses will sue Body-Corp, Rail Corp, Sydney Water and the State Government for loss of goodwill and income. Dredging will stop when we’re on. I want the Dungeon sealed, watertight, by tonight.”

“What about your Phantasm?” Bob asked.

“It’s a scratch!” she said with more bravado than faith. She didn’t have time for this, she had to go shore up the cast about the performance.

“Who are you? What are you doing in my life?” She demanded not completely rhetorically from Arn. A female voice pummelled down the hallway. At least someone was warming up. “Where’s your friend?” She belatedly remembered the waif.

“The kitchen?”

The Green Room was so crowded when she got there that she had to push her way in. It seemed the entire company was in there focussed on the far couch beneath the overhead TV. The last thing Carmello needed.

“Oxygen, people!” she demanded, but Carmello wasn’t there.

“Ambo’s came and took him to St Vinnie’s. Great to have Algernon back. He stepping in tonight?” Grahame from wardrobe asked.

“Algernon?” Then she heard Christine trilling. Immediately she was joined by a baritone voice with that distinct quality that stamped his every note. She pushed a lump down her throat. Her eyes stung. She didn’t have time for this. She walked back out into the hallway. Arn was there.

“What are you doing in my life?”

“Looking for a bathroom.”

“It’s over there,” she pointed and then thought better of it. She took Arn’s hand and led him to the Phantasm’s dressing room. The timbre in Alger’s voice seemed to follow her down the hallway. “There’s a toilet, a shower and a bar-fridge in here. Get him and clean him up. I’ll be back.” She took a breath. Alger’s voice mired in her ears. Damn him. Her buzzer cleared it. It was Grahame. “Algernon’s costume is waiting for him, if you think he might have need of it”

“Too bad he quit. Carmello is still scheduled for tonight.”

She spent what was left of the morning making calls. With the Production Manager away for Christmas, Sheila had to step up. If she could prove herself, it could mean a promotion with the added perk of being a nine-to-five job. She had lunch at St. Vincent’s with Carmello. He was waiting for the registrar to discharge him. He assured her that he was up to doing both the Dress and the Performance that night. Time poor, Sheila left him a cab charge and returned to the theatre. More phone calls awaited her. She hadn’t opened her email yet either. Too busy to call the queues herself, Nerida had stepped in for her.

The wings were crowded when she finally made it prompt-side. Why were there more people there than usual? Something didn’t sound right – as in, normal. She joined the gathering that was watching the performance on the small overhead monitor on a boom stand that was permanently set up in the wings. The Phantasm’s costume hung from him. Couldn’t Grahame have done a better job altering the tux? What was with the white wig? And why was he wearing the old, full mask? Something else was different too. The entire cast seemed to have lifted their game. Every voice sounded sweeter, stronger, more rounded. That was a plus. Turning her gaze from the black and white glare of the monitor, she looked directly at the performers. They were marking their character’s movements but their lips weren’t moving. All of them, except the Phantasm. Every syllable he sang rang out like a physical force, palpably encircling, entrancing and holding every auditor enthralled. Heads edged forward, ears angled closer, mouths dropped to drink in his sound. His voice poured into them, his music overflowing. He didn’t stop singing when his lyrics did. Somehow, he couldn’t. Soon he was singing every single line of every part of the libretto!

“I couldn’t get discharged in time.” Carmello was at her elbow. Sheila looked at him nonplussed.

“Lovey, you can’t go on without a Dress,” Grahame commiserated Carmello. “Honestly Sheila, I didn’t think your man was going to be able to do it. He didn’t utter a word during his fitting. Nothing, in the two hours he was in makeup. Lucy had a hard time getting him to look up. His eyes kept running. He was skittish, making strange noises. Lucy was irked. They used to have a good banter before, you know. Then he croons like that.”

“The tux is swimming.” Sheila fixed her gaze on Alger.

“He needs good, home-cooked meals,” Grahame said and patted her on both shoulders.

“You volunteering?” she countered. “What happened to the toupee?

“Ahhh. It’s a tad tight now with that shock of white hair he’s sporting.”

“Cut it.”

When Sheila went downstairs, she was armed with paperwork. Stepping out of the shower in his bathrobe, Alger was free from prosthetics and dripping water all over the carpet. Some things never changed. He wore a white, bulbous shell strapped around his neck like the one Arn showed her this morning. He kept his gaze averted as she went through the company’s offer for the last fifteen Sydney shows. As she turned to leave, a melodious, “Shao Hua,” escaped his lips and their eyes met.

“You lost the right to call me that when you left. If you disappear again before the end of the fifteenth show, head office will make sure you never work again in musical theatre anywhere in the English speaking world. Got it? Go over the libretto. Don’t stuff it up for the others. A barber will be here within the hour.” Arn stopped her from stalking out.

“You may inform the City of Sydney that Algernon Spires will be available to fill in for David Cole at the New Year’s Eve, Harbour Concert. And the herbal tea has run out in the Green Room. We could do with some in here too. And biscuits.”

She fumed all the way down the hall. Arn had taken her for a ride this morning. The looney was now a doyen of public relations, for her ex!

No-one noticed her in the doorway of the Green Room, but she heard them.

“He’s not the full quid.”

“Sure he can sing. Why can’t he talk?”

“A bit whacked the way he doesn’t look up atchya unless he’s on stage.” Sheila was about to walk away when the TV blared, “Twitter has gone mad today after reports that Algernon Spires will reprise the role of the Phantasm tonight. It seems the phantom sightings of the Phantasm last night were no fantasy.” She walked upstairs and started returning more calls, emails and sms’. At night the curtain came down to a standing ovation. He was back.

The End of the First Day

When all the sets and props were covered and the cloths rehung for the beginning of the first act tomorrow, Sheila retired to her office and waited for the call from Stage Door.

“All signed in, have signed out.”

“Thanks Joe. I’ll lock up.”

“Great to have him back.”

“Good night.”

Her day had finally come to an end. The theatre was quiet but the Phantasm haunted her mind. She wanted to scream. He must have left. Who knows where he would sleep tonight? She’d found him in all sort of places in the past: stairwells, park benches, a bus shelter, under a tree. She couldn’t go home. Was he expecting her to take him there? Did he still have the keys?

She finally looked at her personal phone. Twelve missed calls: one from her brother, two from her mum, four from his and two from his dad. Her mum would forgive her for not calling, but his parents? What was she supposed to say to them? Yes, your son is back. He looks ill, emaciated. He doesn’t make eye contact. He won’t speak. But he can sing. No, you probably can’t talk to him because he has someone speaking for him – the crazy lunatic from the highway who waves placards about aliens coming to steal our bodies!

What if he went home? Her tenants would get a shock. So would he. While he was alive… before he left, he wouldn’t let a room in the house, no matter how much she demanded. Afterwards, repayments had an ominous quality. She did it. She should have done it before. He supported his habits before his share of the mortgage. She wasn’t going home tonight. Instead, she took a blanket from the Green Room and brought it back to the stage, turned on her torch, turned off the lights and climbed the ladder to the fly floor. Few, if any, would find her in the morning. That’s how the chaise lounge managed to stay there after a long-forgotten show had bumped out. Tonight, it was her solace above the stage.

Finally, she closed her eyes. She released a long sigh. It wasn’t enough. She dragged air in through her nostrils and pushed it out through her mouth. All away, all gone. She focused on the silence to blur away every thought, every memory. It was something she had become accustomed to doing, clearing the mind, focusing on nothing. Training on focusing on nothing. It was exhausting. It took so much concentration and with it every natural process of falling asleep. She’d rise more tired than she’d fallen. It was her habit since he first started disappearing. It was better than letting the demon, “what-ifs” drain away her composure. And her sanity.

Now, she called in sleep through her senses, through the rhythmic whir of the air conditioning. It spun the air in cycles of sounds: whirrr, whirrr, whirrr, whirr . . .

Whirling and laughing, he twirled her grandmother. They flirted outlandishly with each other whenever they were together. Nai-nai called Alger, her Mei Lanfang. Nai-nai loved the Beijing Opera. Alger watched it with her on TV when they visited. He would complement the colour and the actions of the performers. He was impressed with their mime and athleticism but especially what they were capable of achieving with their voices. Well then, why didn’t he give it a go, Nai-nai would challenge him. She promised not to wet herself laughing when he couldn’t. Oh, for the sake of saving her carpet cleaning expenses, he’d just watch. Secretly, he rented a DVD from the library and started practising. He loved pushing his voice and seeing what he was capable of, what he could master. Then one day he surprised her with the DVD and his voice. Nai-nai said he was as good as any Occidental could get. But…there, there love, he had enthusiasm. After that she would put on her best dress to greet him and they would serenade each other. It broke Nai-nai’s heart when he disappeared, disappeared, disappeared…

She had to focus on the air conditioner. She took a few deep breaths and tried again. The blades whirred, whirred, whirred around. He was so funny about his throat – his singing apparatus. He knew that his range and capabilities were unique and he burned with curiosity to know how special, but he didn’t let any professional near him. He wouldn’t even trust her GP when he got a cold. Was he afraid of having his tonsils taken out? No, his colds were never that bad. All he needed was a dram or two of scotch. He did his own in depth reading on what a healthy throat looked like and the minutiae of its operations. He knew all the various ailments that could affect human sound production and particularly liked finding case studies of people with deviant conditions. Whir, were, err, erred…

When her brother’s students heard that Algernon Spires would be part of their science lab, their social media activity boosted his public profile. He had an incredible range: bass, baritone, tenor and high falsetto to test. Her brother’s students measured and gauged the sound waves he was able to produce. He mixed it up as best he could for them. But could he crack glass? Always the entertainer, he could try. How thick did they want the glass to be? He didn’t like to disappoint. It was his way of insinuating himself into people’s affections. Her brother had adored him.

Breeeeathe, breeeeathe, breeee, borh, orh, erh, err . . . The air conditioning wasn’t strong enough for him. She found him standing on top of the bedside table, holding his hair back off his forehead and rocking in front of the wall outlet, exhaling. It was her first indication of the severity of his addiction. They were holidaying in Queensland. She loved diving and chose the island because of it. He was expecting a laidback resort-style break, lounging by the pool and ordering drinks. When she insisted that he come out with her to the reef, he reluctantly agreed as far as staying in the glass-bottom boat when they got there. He was uneasy in the ferry that took them out. He stood at the bow clenching the rail and absorbing the drag on his face, not moving from his hold. When the boat anchored he began to fidget and stayed away from the glass-bottom launch. Self-consciously, he chit-chatted with strangers at the back of the queue, helped the cabin crew collect glassware, checked to see that the orange, ring buoys were secured to the railings and struck up some more small talk with the latest stragglers to the end of the line. He was the last to get on. He didn’t look well when he did

The water surface was flat, perfect for viewing coral. She couldn’t help him. The Great Barrier Reef was magical. She would only be about half an hour. He’d get it together. She shouldn’t need to hold his hand.

When she surfaced, he was ensconced in a crowd and singing sea shanties with the crew. His colour wasn’t quite right. Hemmed-in by people, at least he couldn’t see the water. He spent the return trip shaking and throwing up.

Back in their hotel room he had showered first. It seemed to give him little relief. She took her shower and found him on top of the bedside table when she popped back in the room for the hairdryer. He held his face up to the air conditioning vent and rocked backwards and forwards. She told him to take it easy until she was ready and they’d go for a walk. When she finally came out, he was gone. She looked for him in the restaurant and by the poolside. Quelling her embarrassment, she asked concierge if they had seen him. No, but, uncharacteristically, the bar at the far side of the resort was really busy tonight. She thanked them and tried not to slink away.

He was there, jamming with the house band. She walked in alone and stood alone at the bar. She stayed for a set. He’d stopped shaking. She returned to their room. It was the first night that she lost sleep over him. When he finally got into bed he stunk of pot and scotch.

Err, err, rrr, rrra, rrraw . . . That was the state of her nerves, raw. Why didn’t she run then? He was a nightmare. But she had made a lifetime commitment. It was a harrowing mistake. Now, he was back. Breathe.

Hindsight was an anathema to sleep.

This wasn’t the first time that she had spent the night on the cat walk. On occasions that she pushed herself too hard or partied too long, the chaise was easier than the drive home. Tonight was the first time that she didn’t fall asleep right away. She was metres above the floor in an empty theatre that housed more than eleven hundred patrons and two hundred performers and crew. Her loneliness was cavernous. Pitch dark, her torch was sheathed in her pocket. If it dropped through the open rail floor, she would have a hard time descending. The dark didn’t frighten her. She didn’t need to move in it and the theatre was secure… until this morning, until Arn. But the wall in the Dungeon had been repaired, and a drainage grate was installed.

Arn. He was harmless. Wasn’t he? He was that frail old bogey from the highway. Don’t get too close to him and he won’t blow over. But he wasn’t frail. The length of his pale hair and beard was beguiling. His hair was actually as light-blond as it was white. Was he 30? 40? The average Aussie, homicidal, male psycho was in his 40’s, so said the tabloids. Did mental illness make him impotent or did it empower him? Cajoled to come out of his hallucinatory world, could he evoke strength, violence? He must be hallucinating – all that crap about spirals and…swimming to the Harbour down Pitt St… through the subway? If he was sane, a self-directed being, how was it that he lived in a housing commission estate? Unemployment? Circumstances beyond his control; mental control, perhaps? Was he just another dole bludger, just smart enough to get around the welfare system? Or was he a deserving innocent incapable of engaging with the structures and strictures of modern society? He waved placards at the traffic every day convinced that aliens were coming to get the human race. Was it drugs? Madness? Was he dangerous?

He had shown his strength, stamina and resolve that morning in the rain. Knocked down in the traffic and bleeding, he was able to sprint around the city half an hour later, and go swimming, apparently. Physically, there was no reason for him not to be able to support himself. He had more presence of mind than he would have the world believe. He seemed to be exactly where he wanted to be all by chance bad luck. Bad luck that he was able to manipulate? Or was it resolve? Did he target her car this morning with his shopping trolley? How did he know it was her car – she had bought it after Alger had disappeared? He knew what he was doing, he was orchestrating it. He wasn’t an idiot and he wasn’t feeble and he had an agenda. Why was he targeting her? Was he dangerous?

Her body quaked, she took in a deep breath to settle it. Arn Cliffe wasn’t a name. It was a suburb. He couldn’t be living in that no-door storeroom there. Who was he? What was his agenda? Where was he now? Was he dangerous?

Joe said that everyone who had signed into the theatre had signed out. She took another deep breath. She had to be alone. The Dungeon… Instinctively she looked down. No human could access the theatre from there now. Could they? She would hear it from her perch if they did. The silence would alert her immediately. She inhaled. She was alone. The emptiness around her filled with the mechanical revolutions of the air conditioner, reinforcing her sense of safety. It was all she could hear, the slashing of blades through the air. If she could just synchronise her breathing.

Breathe…breathe…

“Whu…”

Breathe…breathe…

“Whu, Whuua…”

Her eyelids flicked up. “Who’s there?”

Clink!

“Whua…” It was an expulsion of air more than a word.

Clink!

“Hua.” It was her name.

“Who’s there?” She was cold.

“Hua.” The sound jettisoned up the ladder, striking her chest.

“Ha, ha, very funny.”

“Hua.” Its bass sound dropped.

Schwipe, clink! Metal hit metal.

“Hua!” rose. She caught its wind in her throat. “Hua,” fell and the air fell away with it.

Clink! Schwipe, Clink!

“Show’s over.” Her throat constricted. Schwipe, clink!

“Hua.” Her breath released. Clink!

She coughed. “Phantasm’s… gone,” laboured out her voice. She heard schwipe slide up the ladder and clink as a metallic ring grabbed onto the next rung.

“Hua.”

“Show yourself!” Her elbows, her knees, tensed. Clink! Her tongue receded into her throat. Saliva seeped into her mouth. Schwipe. Another advance up the metal ladder accompanied the peak and trough of “Huas”. Her jaw dropped. A small, luminescent circle emerged above the cage floor. It rose. Clink! Schwipe-clink! It stopped. Silence. Clink! Schwipe, creeeak! Her nostrils flared. The disk bobbed. Schwipe-Creeeak. The sound and the light were advancing together but distinct from each other. Creeeak. Her chest was heavy. It was pulling down. She turned on her torch, its slim beam couldn’t penetrate far enough into the darkness. There was a figure there on the cat-walk. The follicles of her cheeks petrified. Creak. Closer.

“Hua…Hua…,” oscillated in the air with a leonine, base resonance. It was pervasive. “Hua.” It penetrated her chest. Her lungs filled with it. “Hua.” Her diaphragm moved with it. In and up, “Hua,” down and out. Her breath rose and fell into its rhythm, deliberately. “Huuuuah,” up her face and across her forehead. “Hua.” Involuntarily, the furrowing of her forehead relaxed. Her cheeks slipped back towards her ears as her control of them left her. ‘Hua.” She felt herself lilting. “Hua.” Her breath was in its thrall. “Hua”, was expelling muscular tension in gusts throughout her body.

“Hua,” she breathed… The feeling was soothing… “Hua,” she breathed again. She didn’t want it to be. “Hua.” The rhythm was warming her, releasing her, lightening… drifting… “Hua.” She didn’t think it was right… A weight of “Huas” bore down on her crown, her forehead… her eyes… her limbs. “Huuuua”. She expelled them in gusts through her mouth. All the while he came closer. She closed her lids. Giddy… she sank back on the chaise. “Gohua…huaway.” She inhaled the subtle odour of his scent. So…close. “Hua.” He lifted her blanket. His breath was on her neck, in her chest, down her torso. She breathed him in. So warm, so… familiar… so alien. She slept.

Several hours later they were woken by the strobe of the overly close, worker lights.

“Algernon! C’mon. They made us a door. Let’s go.”

It was Arn. How was he onstage? Sheila stirred first. Alger held her back a moment. He hummed a couple of low frequency tones into the curve of her neck, their vibration flooded her with warmth. Then left down the ladder without a word. In disbelief she threw off the blanket and was inundated by a white cloud of dust. She coughed. No, it was dandruff, or was it … skin? Arn released the trapdoor and dropped behind Alger into the dungeon. Sheila raced down the ladder through the trap and onto the crash mat after them. They were stripping down to their underwear. Alger’s skin was peeling all over. His chest was an eyesore, burnt red raw. His eyes were watery. He garbled something at her and grimaced.

“No fear, I’ll have him back for make-up,” Arn promised. With that, both men crouched down by the new water drainage grate. They removed it. Climbed into the shallow reservoir and swam away into the city’s storm-water catchment system.

The First Week

Algernon was an enigma. He kept to his dressing room when he was in the theatre. He spoke to no one, just acknowledged everyone with a wave. He made eye contact with no one, except Arn. Sheila avoided his gaze. When he looked at her it was with a sense of longing but he said nothing to her. He avoided the Green Room and the stage when he wasn’t performing. He dimmed the lights in his dressing room and took overly long, cold showers before and after each performance. His eyes were constantly glassy. Lucy complained that she couldn’t do his make-up. Once she turned up the lights and his eyes gushed torrents. When she removed the prosthetics at night, his face was red and puffy with the odd welt. Each time he’d crack apart a whole tray of ice into a hand towel and bury his face in it. He’d never reacted to the latex before. Onstage, his performances were electrifying. After the final curtain he would disappear into his dressing room and re-emerge when everyone had left.

On the second night just before lock-up he showed up at Sheila’s office and waited there for her to log off. He silently sat in an armchair in a corner. She wasn’t ready to deal with him yet. She avoided looking at him. Too hyped up from the show, she procrastinated answering emails, filling logs, writing references and every other task she could easily have put off. He could be patient. His presence was perturbing. Why didn’t he say something, anything – how’s the weather outside?

Sheila retrieved her personal mobile from the desk drawer and threw it to him.
“I’m not the only one that’s been waiting to hear from you. You deal with them.” He caught the phone. She caught his gaze. He took her hands in a single lunge forward. He held them captive. She was forced to look at him. Watery, something was imploring her in his eyes. Was it fear? It was need. Why now? Why was he back? The landline rang. She broke away.

“Thanks, Joe. You’re fine to lock up.”

Alger hadn’t moved. He didn’t look at her phone. He just looked at her, waiting, expecting. He spoke not a word. But she needed him to talk. His eyes did his begging. She wasn’t going to do his bidding. She needed an explanation. His eyes were welling up. She dimmed the lights to ease them. It didn’t ease the tension in his face. What had he gone through? What was he still going through? She was always there putting him back together, before. Was he feeling remorseful for what he had put her through? He needed comfort, security. Perhaps then he’d talk, tell her why. She had loved him so much. He had hurt her so deeply. She wasn’t going to take him home. She led him into the wings and up to the fly floor instead. He held her to him on the chaise for a long time, saying nothing. Subtle tremors through his body belied his tears. There was fear there, she was sure of it. She asked him softly. Still, he said nothing. He needed her to just be there. She needed answers. She could be patient, too.

Each night thence she would join him on the fly floor and wait for him to speak. He, in turn, would hold her closely and breathe away his fear and her insomnia into a deep, dreamless sleep. In the morning Arn would wake them and the two men would disappear down through the Dungeon floor, returning in time for make-up.

Christmas Eve

When the final curtain came down on that first Saturday night and the stage was cleared, Sheila went down to Alger’s dressing room. Arn offered her a cup of tea and a biscuit. They watched Lucy work in silence.

“They say the rain’ll stop by tomorrow,” Lucy said as she began packing away her kit.

“Two weeks of cats-n-dogs. At least the wind’s died down.”

“Hmm, the rain has drawn out the dredging work in the subway,” Sheila mused.

“And the Tank Stream flows again,” effused Arn.

“We’ve been really lucky with our audiences. They haven’t been turned off. And the media hasn’t picked up on how close we are to the catchment. They say the subway’ll be another week.”

“In a week the winds will spiral again and the rain will fall once more,” prophesised Arn.

“I thought I’d seen you somewhere before. Aren’t you the guy that stands out on the highway waving warnings about aliens?” Lucy asked him.

“Yes!” Arn beamed.

“You know you’re not the only one doin’ it now? There’s someone on Parramatta Rd, the Eastern Distributer, the Cahill Expressway… It was on morning talk back.”
“By Monday, I’ll have all major roads into the city canvased!” Arn cradled the back of his head in both hands and slouched lower into the couch.

“Because the aliens are coming.” Lucy laughed.

“Noooo! Because they’re leaving!”

Lucy laughed even harder. “So am I. See’ya Monday.”

Alger turned to Sheila expectantly. “There’s no show tomorrow, it’s Christmas. No-one will be here. The electricity will be cut. There’ll be no air con. Rail Corp will be making a lot of noise,” she explained.

“I, actually go home at night,” Arn said.

“Merry Christmas then.” She found Alger’s eyes. “I’ll be going home, too.”

He walked over to her and took her hands, looked her straight in the eyes and opened his mouth. “Ohohohohoh,” trembled out. He squeezed her hands and tried again, “Ohohomh.” He wanted to go home.

3. Community Theatre: The Turtle and The Empty Stage

Having a Set vs the Bare Stage

Capitol Theatre, Sydney
Capitol Theatre, Sydney

Putting up a stage show can be a costly operation. However, the time true motto – beg, borrow, steal, mightn’t be that necessary anymore. Who needs a set anyway? The emotion, the story, the talent will hold it together, will thrust a performance out of the darkness and into the hearts and minds of the audience. All of those extras are most needed by a performance that can’t stand on its own. Well, um…maybe not.

So, professional actors make it look easy. Who needs a prop – they can make a mime real. What to do with their hands when silence requires them to listen or swathes of text handled incorrectly deteriorates to clenched-handed newscasting? Professionals know the balance between not employing their limbs or looking like windmills in a storm. Where to stand and, whether and where to sit, slouch or recline when officious situations are required to bring about the power relationships within the drama or social status needs to be visually defined becomes a little more difficult.

For lovers of the craft who aren’t professional actors or professionally trained, not having something to define the setting, the social strictures or physical ones demanded by the text can be frustrating. Fancy costumes may look pretty but alone, they can’t describe the physical dynamic between characters. A couch, chair, column, raised floor, set of steps or rostrum, breaking up the space can help define status and setting.

Of course, if you are going to employ a set it has to be incorporated into the rehearsal process as early as possible – to best utilize it. The set doesn’t have to be meticulously realistic or overly dressed but practical. Sometimes it becomes a character of its own.

The set has a job to do that aids the performer in bringing off the page what the playwright has intended. It should support the performers so that they can fulfil their own potential. Today that potential may be limited, but in the future with greater stage time experience, that potential will grow.

This series of posts have been inspired by my more regular attendance at community theatres around the south of Sydney this year.

Other posts have been:

  1. Community Theatre: The Turtle and the Empty Stage –  Silence and Listening
  2. Community Theatre: The Turtle and the Empty Stage – Accents, Performing in a Second Language and Disabilities

Can Romance Thrive over the Course of a Marriage?

Silent Night, Lonely Night by Robert Anderson

Director: Jim Searle

26 October – 24 November, 8pm

The Guild Theatre, Rockdale

Lonely hearts, Katherine (Peggy Leto) and John (Barry McMaster)

Lonely hearts, Katherine (Peggy Leto) and John (Barry McMaster) Photo Credit: Craig O’Regan

Can romance thrive through the course of a marriage? What happens when it takes a sabbatical? Does infidelity necessarily spring solely from wanton abandon?

In 1959 sex could cast a long shadow away from a dawning horizon and into the lingering night. Love, sex, marriage and fidelity were inextricably bound. Indulging sexually could set your life’s course because of the pervasive belief that sex belonged wholly in holy matrimony. Extra-marital liaisons were considered wanton at the very best. To partake outside the circumscription allowed social expectations to dictate the “what’s next” in your entire life’s path.

Robert Anderson’s play delves into the nature of romantic love, the consequences of sexual relations in a society scaffolded on Christian morality and contrasts these traditional notions with the uninhibited ability of the sexual act to be a source of comfort and communion with another person. In 2018, with our freedom to speak and explore, and the offering of life choices in pluralistic plethora, the play still holds a message. It explores the fragility of romantic love in a long term relationship and loneliness, in its absence.

Off to see a movie reel, Barry Mc Master (John) and Peggy Leto (Katherine)

John and Katherine, off to see a movie reel, Barry Mc Master and Peggy Leto, Photo Credit: Darren McDowell

It’s Christmas Eve. One of the loneliest nights of the year for many. Katherine (Peggy Leto) has come to visit her son in a small American town where he attends school. He is in the school infirmary and she must see him off to meet her husband in London. She won’t be joining them. She refuses her husband’s call. We aren’t told why.

Having already asked the newly-weds also staying in the hotel to join him that night, self-professed widower, John (Barry McMaster) loses no time in infiltrating Katherine’s solitude and dinner in her suite. An incurable romantic he regales her with the story of his great love for his wife and his loneliness, his pain. She listens. Her experience of marriage is contrasted with his, and so is her personality.

The play is delivered with humour, intellect and sensitivity. Barry McMaster’s gregarious portrayal of a middle-aged American man, confident in his ability to engage with people and unquestioning in his entitlement to do so, is vivid and convincing. His stories and his person fill the stage.

The Newly-Weds, Phillip (Russell Godwin) and Janet (Eloise Tanti)

The Newly-Weds, Phillip (Russell Godwin) and Janet (Eloise Tanti), Photo Credit: Craig O’Regan

Peggy Leto’s Katherine is John’s foil. Reserved and anxious, she gradually warms to John’s presence in her suite. Her delivery is subtle and restrained. Despite her American accent there’s a decidedly understated, Australian character about her delivery. She’s a joy to watch. Often silent for long stretches of John’s monologue Leto communicates with gesture and movement – silently acknowledging what she’s heard, urging him to continue with a nod or questioning his veracity with her eyes to comic effect. They are joined by a capable supporting cast.

Director, Jim Searle delivers a reflective night at the theatre with quite a few laughs thrown in. Silent Night, Lonely Night is just the play to ease you into the fast approaching Christmas season as you join John and Katherine in a small rural inn in New England.

Bookings can be made online at www.guildtheatre.com.au or (ph) 9521 6358.

Tearing Down the Fourth Wall

Pushing Up Daisies vs A Comedy of Errors

“O! I’m going to the theatre, Darling. The cinema is sooo plebeian. Mink or Chinchilla to guard against the cold?”

Nauseating!

“It’s a Brechtian interpretation. Perfect for my essay on comparative approaches to theatrical storytelling on the early 20th Century Stage.”

Alienating!

“Ohh, goody, there’s a hearing loop in the auditorium!”

Tragicomedy!

“Chookas, Sweetie. I’ll be in the fifth row, towards stage left.”

Familial, fidelity.

“How could he be cast over me?????”

No Comment.

The demountable Pop-Up Globe at the Entertainment Quarter, formerly Fox Studios, Sydney.

The demountable Pop-Up Globe at the Entertainment Quarter, formerly Fox Studios, Sydney.

 

Theatre audiences haven’t always fallen into such broad categories. Look around an auditorium and you will see a refined bunch of people with seemingly singular taste. But they’re a small umbrella group. Of course, I’m not referring to the big musicals that seem to break out and draw people in – crossing boundaries of wealth, sub-cultural fixations and education, and beyond the community of theatre practitioners who love and support the craft and each other.

Spending two to five times as much as the price of going to the footy to see a drama or an opera, can be an edifying, fulfilling experience but it won’t provoke the same audience response and loud catharsis that the footy can. Oops! Isn’t the theatre supposed to be cathartic? Hasn’t that old Greek word entered the English language to describe what goes on in your heart when theatre is at its best? When it lifts you, makes you see yourself and realise that you have changed or can change or that somehow life can be better?

Catharsis in the theatre is a very personal thing. It quietly slips down your cheek when no one is watching.  It wasn’t always the case. In Shakespeare’s day it was caterwauled at the performers, its heckling parleyed back and forth between the auditorium and the stage along with a barrage of soft tomatoes, and it could take to the streets in insurrection.

I don’t think you have to go so far back as Shakespeare to find audiences so engaged with performances – perhaps only back to just before the advent of television. When theatre was the only choice of dramatic storytelling for all.

In modern presentations of plays directors and their troupes try to instigate some of that interaction.

Shakespeare wrote the asides, as if they were improvised, to address his audience directly into his texts. At the Pop-Up Globe the performers run through the groundlings’ standing pit, and the stalls. They invite the audience to photograph them mid performance; they hurl fruit into the audience and lewd staging is used to raise laughs and lower everyone’s inhibitions. The twenty-first century audience smiles in appreciation of their nod to historical performance peccadillos and laugh too, but say nothing in response.

The Cast of Pushing Up Daisies aka Ta Radikia Anapoda (Hellenic Art Theatre)

The Cast of Pushing Up Daisies aka Ta Radikia Anapoda (Hellenic Art Theatre)

What would happen if the audience did respond? and as often as they were invited to and, when they weren’t invited.

Over the past week I have attended two very different productions. Both were comedies. The first was Shakespeare’s classic, A Comedy of Errors in the Pop-Up Globe and the other was Pushing Up Daisies or Τα Ραδικια Αναποδα, by the Hellenic Art Theatre. In the first production, the ensemble dared the audience to interact. In the second, they had to deal with it as a matter of course.

How to cook with no ingredients - feeding the hungry in Athens with the Chef (Nick Tsioukanis)

How to cook with no ingredients – feeding the hungry in Athens with the Chef (Nick Tsioukanis)

Τα Ραδικια Αναποδα, by Γιωρου Γαλιτη,  under the direction of Stavros Economidis satirises stereotypes found in modern day Athenian society. It does this by a series of monologues presented as eulogies to the newly departed. Each eulogy is honest rather than diplomatic and more revealing about the living than the dead. Among the different types we hear from is a thief, a bishop, a socialite, a politician, a surgeon and, poignantly, a chef (Nick Tsioukanis) who advises how to cook for life under the austerity measures imposed on Greece in the wake of the economic crisis.

The stage is bare, dressed with only two coffins, diagonally pointing into centre stage. Each monologue is delivered between these two coffins beginning with the personification of death himself.

The nature of monologues is to be addressed to the audience directly as much if not more than the stage environment. Conventionally, the audience sits up and listens closer. In this production the audience is alert and engaged from the get go. As Death enters and requests mobile phones be switched off, the pre-show chatter is diverted and acknowledges his request. Chatter isn’t entirely quelled and remarks fly on every entrance by a subsequent performer.

The Metropolitan (John Daviskas) eulogizing the assets of the holy departed.

The Metropolitan (John Daviskas) eulogizing the assets of the holy departed.

“Ah, here she is! It’s Evelyn.”

“Hmm, Stavros has lost weight.”

It’s clear there is a familiarity between the performers and their audience that has been accumulating over years of offering and attendance.

When each eulogy begins with an address to the deceased, someone has to voice the audience concerns that the latest performer has made a mistake. Clearly the dead man was named for someone else.

“Get it right, it’s so-and-so in that coffin.”

“No. It’s supposed to be a different person, now.”

As each monologue is given, audience members comment and add short anecdotes among themselves. It’s clear and loud that they can relate. Occasionally the performers were heckled within the context of the character that they were presenting.

Without even having to try, the fourth wall is down. Why did the Pop-Up Globe troupe have to put such an effort? Could it be that the answer lies with the audience?

The widow

The Widow (Evelyn Tsavales)

I’m apt to hypothesize that a lot has to do with the fact that the Hellenic Art Theatre have a relationship with their audience that spans many decades. There is a familiarity of faces across the fourth wall and also between the pews of the auditorium. They are not the disconnected group that attend the larger commercial theatres of the city. They share the migrant experience that binds them whether its mink on the shoulders or uni books in the backpack or personal connections to the company. There is security in this familiarity.  It’s something that I’m betting this audience shares with that of the audiences at the Globe in the age of Elizabeth and James. Then, there was the homogenous experience of being citizens of London who waited for the theatre for their drama where for decades HA Theatre’s audience waited for HA Theatre to be the sole provider of theirs.

A lot has to do with the comedy as well. When they offer Euripides’ tragedy, The Trojan Women later in the year, I can’t imagine that there’ll be heckling.

With such an abundance of audience banter – how do the performers deal with it?

The General

The General (Stavros Economidis)

It would take a seasoned performer with the resilience of a street performer or swift repartee of a stand-up comedian to take it all in stride and keep the momentum of the written text going. That’s how I imagine the King’s Men, Shakespeare’s company, to have been like. The exercise of the same members of the ensemble, play after play in front of a familiar audience would insite asides, heckling and banter that Shakespeare never recorded.

The cast of the Hellenic Art Theatre take it all in stride and offer a very enjoyable night at the theatre.

Pushing Up Daisies or Τα Ραδικια Αναποδα is playing at the Mantouridion Greek Theatre at the Addison Rd Community Complex in Marrickville until 30th September. English surtitles are projected throughout the performance. Bookings: www.hellenicarttheatre.com.au

The Pop-Up Globe is offering Shakespeare in Moore Park from this September and October.

Review: Tales of Hoffmann

Rockdale Opera Company

August 18-26, 2018, Rockdale Town Hall

Musical Director: Luke Spicer

Director: David Brennan

Looking for a good night out? Boo! Did I scare you? No? How ’bout…”OPERA!!!!” Scared now? What about, “Ernest Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann!” Yes? Edgar Allan Poe, better? No? Hoffmann is scarier – his stories have been operatically realised by the great romantic composer, Jacques Offenbach.

Okay, “OPERA! HOFFMANN! OFFENBACH!” Now you’ve got to be scared!

Mention a good night out and most people won’t immediately think of the Opera. It’s that thing that happens in that funny looking building on the Harbour. It’s performed in a foreign language. It’s expensive. Everyone speaks with an apple in their mouth and they’re just the audience. And the sound is…different – sonorous singing complementing a rich instrumental accompaniment – not the usual demonstrative rapping or tuneful skipping out of lyrics meant to be bopped to. It’s decidedly not pedestrian and not easily accessible.

Olympia (Camilla Wright) and Spalanzani (Michael Handy), image courtesy Heymish PR

Olympia (Camilla Wright) and Spalanzani (Michael Handy), image courtesy Oscar Smith

But what if it was? What if it were in English and each act opened with a dramatic introduction setting the scene about to be sung? What if it was offered in suburban Rockdale, with plenty of free-parking and easy public transport? What if Musical Director, Luke Spicer, presented a superb orchestra to uplift highly trained and talented singers? What if the Director brought with him the experience of years as a principal at Opera Australia as David Brennan has? What if the core of the Rockdale Town Hall resonated with the song of disparate lyrical organs expressing their joy in concert with each other, in concert with Offenbach?

It would be a shame to miss it.

The Rockdale Opera Company’s, Tales of Hoffmann, offers all of this. If you haven’t experienced opera before, this production is all too easy. An act by act synopsis is offered in the programme and just enough time and ample lighting to comfortably read it in the scene changes. Adjusting your ear to the style of singing may take a few moments – like accustoming yourself to Shakespearean English –  but it’s worth it.

Benjamin Oxley as Hoffmann, image courtesy Heymish PR

Benjamin Oxley as Hoffmann, image courtesy Oscar Smith

The poet, Hoffmann, walked away from his creative muse to pursue love with disastrous and macabre results. Three of his exploits detail his bizarre infatuations: with a life-size, battery-operated doll; a Venetian enchantress who steals his reflection and hopes to steal his soul; and the lovely Antonia who loves him but risks her health when she shares his music with him.

Benjamin Oxley’s Hoffman is sympathetic and real. The warmth of his voice and the sureness of his pace and actualization endear us to his plight. Camilla Wright mesmerises with her realisation of the doll, Olympia. Her robotic movements and painted smile fool few beside the lovelorn Hoffman. There is much to admire in her delivery, she enchants with her acting and musical humour.

Nicklausse (Barbara Jin) watches over Hoffman (Benjamin Oxley). Image courtesy Heymish PR

Nicklausse (Barbara Jin) watches over Hoffman (Benjamin Oxley). Image courtesy Oscar Smith

Barbara Jin, portrays Nicklausse, a student who the Muse has charged with looking out for Hoffmann. She physicalises her character’s emotions roundly, communicating her state of mind emphatically without hamming. Ray Dubber, a company veteran, delights as the near-deaf servant, Franz. He has a larrikin’s face for comedy and is a delight to watch, a delight to listen to.

Franz (Ray Dubber), image courtesy Heymish PR

Franz (Ray Dubber), image courtesy Oscar Smith

Opera poses many challenges for its performers: they must sing the right notes; carry the tune at volume; and bring across their particular character. In a couple of instances towards the end of the second half, the strength of the full orchestra posed a challenge for the performers. But the feelings were there.

This opera was unfinished by Offenbach at his death. We are told that the act in Venice was left the least developed. Dramatic tension within this act could perhaps have been better utilised with a bigger delivery of the dastardly Dapertutto, the purveyor of reflections and souls – perhaps from costuming or make-up? Perhaps the blocking of his movement and interactions?

The costumes are evocative of the early 20th Century and aid in setting the production. The set itself is stripped back and striking – a lit backcloth and black silhouettes creating the Tavern and Venice effectively.

All in all, the Rockdale Opera Company’s, Tales of Hoffmann is a good night out, even for the uninitiated. Very enjoyable.

Tickets can be booked online. Phone bookings: 02 8197 1796

Hurry, the run closes August 26!