Chants Des Catacombes
Present Tense @ Adelaide Gaol
11:00pm, Thu 23 Feb 2012
I’d been (erroneously) warned that the usual access road to the Adelaide Gaol was closed; unsure of an alternative route that wasn’t a significant extra distance, I scooted out of The Year of Magical Wanking as soon as decorum would allow and walked as swiftly as possible out onto West Terrace. As I skirt around onto Port Road, I notice a gap in the traffic; I decide to take the opportunity and cross over. I step onto the road, take another step, and pop – suddenly I’m wincing in pain, and my right calf is on fire.
I hobble back to the curb and try to stretch it out – no good, this is definitely not cramp. I struggle on to the Gaol, finding the most comfortable way to carry myself – the limp is still evident, though, and the calf still burns. I arrive ten minutes early; artistic director Bryce Ives crosses my name off their pre-paid list and mentions that they’re running a little late. I see people wearing Adelaide Gaol t-shirts scurrying into and out of the Gaol as I try and keep my leg warm, afraid of what will happen if it cools off – and locks up.
Eventually we’re encouraged through the Gaol gates into the darkness, occasional candles acting as our guides; I struggle along, pausing only to grab a glass of proffered sangria, before progressing to (what must have been) the old exercise yard. There a discordant piano is played, while unsettling effects are heard from within the Gaol itself; patrons are left to their own devices in the grassy area. It’s dark but for the moonlight and flickering candles, and the sangria is delightful.
Bryce appears again to inform the crowd that Chants Des Catacombes is presented en promenade, then guides us into a wing of the Gaol. Expectantly, the crowd line the walls; at the far end, stairs appear blocked off by a harp and a chaise longue. The door slams shut behind us; lights and voices come from upstairs through the metal grating: the light blinding, the voices garbled and manic.
And suddenly a single voice – pure, strong, supremely seductive – pierces the cacophony; a single line was all it took for me to recognise Glory Box. As two other voices – and bodies – slink down the corridor, I suddenly realise there’s a mournful musical backing; the three women, clad in black and red, dance amongst the crowd in the narrow wing. They sing, they move, the light catches them perfectly; the sound is amazing, the smell of the musty old building fills my nose, and these three stunning forms are everywhere there seems to be light.
I have been won over… big time. And the performance has only really been going five minutes.
Two of the women disappear; the sole remainder plays the harp and tells up the tale of her demise – a courtesan with a vicious client. We’re then cajoled into another room, dominated by a stage, a small band behind. There we meet the second of our women, a wartime cabaret performer forced to consort with the enemy; a touch more dance, the hint of violence, and a touch of Blondie and Bowie. I’m starting to wonder whether the calf pain has made me regress into the corners of my own mind, because this seems to be ticking all the boxes.
But it gets better.
Into a third room, where the third woman – a gifted female surgeon, stricken in the age of men – dances in anger on a hospital bed; I’d inadvertently chosen the most wonderful position for this, perhaps my favourite of the three stories. Up close and personal, I was completely blown away by the power and tempered rage and… well, everything in her voice.
But it gets better… again.
Back into the initial wing, the door through which we’d arrived was now spotlit; the instruments of the three women’s murders hanging overhead. Sure, the choice of John Farnham may have seemed cheesy for a return to the powerful trio of vocals, but that’s more than offset by a bit of Nirvana. It’s absolutely glorious, mesmerising singing, accompanied by purposeful movements… but it’s over too soon. Out of that wing we go, into another courtyard… where The Twoks (who had provided the music within the Gaol itself) were playing a bizarrely laid-back version of Clint Eastwood.
And, to make things even more betterer, they kept playing for another half-hour while cast, crew, and audience all had a bit of a drink and a dance… well after midnight on a school night. Under the stars. At an old Gaol.
Look, there’s no way of beating around the bush on this: I fucking loved Chants Des Catacombes. Every little bit of it. The three principals were stunning in all aspects of their performance; the music before, during, and after the show was amazing; and the direction of the various pieces throughout the Gaol was nigh-on perfect.
And then, whilst talking with cast and crew post-show whilst The Twoks played, I discover that some of the regular Gaol staff had inadvertently sealed off one of the wings that was scheduled to be used, causing a significant re-structuring of part of the performance.
Perhaps the most compelling thing to me, though, was the acoustic purity that the Collective managed to conjure; on previous visits to the Gaol, the long corridors proved to be sonically bright and tinnitus-triggering. Chants, on the other hand, was spectacularly managed, with every song and every musical note as clear as a bell, bereft of echo or modulation. Technically, that is an absolute triumph, and a credit to musical director Nathan Gilkes and choreographer David Harford.
As I hobbled away from the Gaol, I knew that I’d seen one of the highlights of the Fringe. I also felt that I couldn’t have thanked the Collective more without appearing super-creepy. And I know I’ve completely failed to convey how much I wholly – unreservedly – loved Chants Des Catacombes.