Book of Longing
Philip Glass & ensemble @ Festival Theatre
8:00pm, Fri 14 Mar 2008
What do I know about Leonard Cohen? Well, Neil relayed the idea that he created beautiful – if gloomy – poetry, and his songs bookended Natural Born Killers (certainly my favourite Oliver Stone movie). What do I know about Philip Glass? Minimalist composer, lampooned in South Park, and I managed to see Scot Hicks’ doco focussed on the man a few days prior to this. Other than that… I know bugger all about these two chaps.
So why, exactly, was I rushing from the Fringe Factory down to the Festival Theatre on another stinking hot night?
Arriving in my own puddle of sweat (with just enough time to cover my torso in deodorant in the toilets before the soothingly urgent doors-open-get-your-arses-in-here bing-binging of the Festival Centre), I notice a wide selection of the crowd pawing through a small booklet – the poems to be covered in Book of Longing. This annoyed me – a lot – since there was only one booklet allocated for every two seats – and my seat wasn’t one of the lucky ones. Sigh. A neighbour super-grudgingly let me briefly flick through their copy prior to the performance; as a short Cohen anthology, it’s a great freebie, and I was delighted to snaffle my own copy post-performance from someone else’s cast-offs.
Of course, that begs the question: why were there cast-offs at all? Don’t other people clutch onto their programmes, their souvenirs, as tightly as I do?
But enough about that. The set was very simple – some of Cohen’s artwork, set in simple geometric shapes, formed a rather insignificant and pointless backdrop to the performers. Glass played keyboards, of course, and was accompanied by a decent selection of strings, a smattering of percussion, and four vocalists who enunciated Cohen’s words over Glass’ score. The vocal delivery ranged from almost straight readings of the text, through soaring flights of operatic pomposity; there were very few times when any of the vocalists voiced something that made me sit up and take notice. As for the score… well, I have to admit that I was expecting something a lot more repetitive and monotonic (well, at least of minimal tonal variation, anyway) than what was presented; certainly the horrid solos provided by the instrumentalists onstage (dropped notes a-plenty) beat expectations. Though not necessarily in a good way.
…Christ, I’m just reading the opening to this piece back, and it makes it sound like I absolutely hated Book Of Longing; but that’s not true at all. It was pleasant, if not mildly enjoyable, with some bits of genuine interest: Glass peering at the vocalists, eyes flitting back and forth between the performers and the score in a grandfatherly display of concern. The surprisingly dynamic score played nicely against some of Cohen’s poetry at times; “This Morning I Woke Up Again”, for example, had a staccato rhythm and repetition that was curiously reminiscent of (my expectation of) Glass’ compositions. And, most of all, the end of the performance was stunning – as the final piece reaches its climax, each of the performers slowly moves to the front of the stage, standing, open, facing the audience; as the piece softly peters out, the house lights gently come up – by the time the last note is played, we’re all bathed in light, sharing what feels like a remarkably intimate moment with those onstage and off.
But the problem is that, whilst there were a few genuine surprises – and despite the glorious ending – I just didn’t really enjoy this performance that much. Now, maybe that’s because of late-FF fatigue, but regardless… it just didn’t click. I kept thinking that Cohen’s poetry would be better heard in my own headspace while I read it myself; I kept thinking that Glass’ score would be better heard elsewhere, without vocal accompaniment.
Post-performance, waiting for the crowd to disperse, the aforementioned grudgy neighbour managed to dissipate any feelings of positivity gathered by the ending by rabbiting on and on to his wife: “In New York and London, they keep coming out while the audience is clapping; here in Adelaide, everyone stops clapping so soon they don’t bother.” Much teeth-gnashing resulted. Strangely enough, the usual crowd of Festival Standing Ovation-ers didn’t seem to be in attendance this evening, either; presumably they would’ve turned out in droves had we been in New York.