Die Winterreise | Malthouse Theatre and ThinIceImage by Garth Oriander

In 1827 Franz Schubert composed a song cycle to a series of twenty-four poems by Wilhelm Muller. The result was the sometimes sorrowful, but rather beautiful, Winterreise, or in English, Winter Journey.

Muller’s poems tell of a wandering young man who finds his way to a village only to fall in love with the daughter of the family with whom he is invited to live. His love seems to be requited but the daughter eventually rejects him for a wealthier suitor, and so the man is forced to leave the village, and therefore his love, behind. Through song and music Winterreise captures the pain of the young man’s physical and emotional journey through the winter. Followed by his memories, he at times longs for death, but there are moments of hope, and finally he falls upon some form of salvation.

It is this work that inspired Australian Director Matthew Lutton to create Die Winterreise, which features, and is structured rather loosely around, the songs of Schubert. Lutton has long been known in our country’s West, and now, at just twenty-six years of age, he is Malthouse Theatre’s new Artistic Associate. In collaboration with several other artists, including playwright Tom Holloway, he has created a work that explores the sense of loneliness, and the character’s search for peace, that is present in the original Winterreise, and with it he is sure to make his mark around Australia.

As in the original Winterreise, the story behind the main character’s journey in Lutton’s work is not nearly as important as the mood it creates. In fact in Lutton’s work, the story itself is rather uninteresting. Its execution however is fascinating. Die Winterreise is a work that transcends an evocation of mood; it forces a visceral participation from its audience, and offers an experience quite unlike any other.

Its story is formed around the mostly silent character of an aging man (George Shevtsov) who is leading a solitary and seemingly static existence. Whilst the journey taken by the character in the original Winterreise is in part a physical one, in this work it is an internal journey taken by a man facing his past and inner demons. Rather than traversing Schubert’s snowy landscape, the character, at least to begin with, swelters through the Australian heat within his own house.

The character in this work ventures to the outside world only once, and so the inside of his house and the characters or emotions he faces within it, become crucial to the creation of his sense of despair. Adam Gardnir has created a house that is suitably mouldy, sparse, and fading, and from the onset, with the smell of frying onions, this work engages its audience’s senses.

Integral to the set are the sliding glass doors on the rear wall, which, much like the rest of the room, seem to have a film of muck around them. With the aid of Paul Jackson’s lighting the windows will become frosted when the falling of green leaves become the falling of white snow – not just outside the house, but inside as well. And like the windows on either side of the house they offer a glimpse of the darkness on the outside world; one that is interchangeably a threat, an escape, and finally, a place that is perhaps not so much of rest, but one of exile.

In this work Lutton has intriguingly brought to life what haunts his character internally by featuring three other characters, each embodying elements of the older man. Rather skilfully Adam Gardnir has put them in costumes that suggest they are not just a part of the older man, but he at different stages throughout his life. Whilst a vinyl record plays music, it is these characters that tell the majority of his story, not through the spoken word, but through Schubert’s piano music, the singing of Muller’s poems, and through dance.

The singer (Paul Capsis), piano player (Alister Spence), and the compositions and arrangements of music by Spence and Kelly Ryall, are integral to this work and its ability to connect with its audience. Capsis is a stand out. At first he is sublime – the song Gute Nacht or Good Night at the work’s opening is perhaps the most moving of all – but then he has the incredible ability to take on the absurd, to shriek, and then to return to a state that is both steady and beautiful.

The songs are interspersed with the amplified sounds of actions; chopping a carrot, shutting a door, and the shattering of glass – all are loud and exaggerated. Somewhat surprisingly, rather than detracting from the songs, these sounds accentuate and echo the internal nature of the character’s struggle and the pain that accompanies it, so much so that they are at times nauseating in their volume and relentlessness.

Whilst predominantly an auditory experience, this work is extremely physical. The dancer, James O’Hara, embodies the anguish, frustration, and self-punishment that seem to be slowly crippling the older man, both emotionally and physically. O’Hara’s character initially moves through the house like a tornado – once released he seems intent on destruction. Shevtsov challenges him with physical force, which they act out in a scarily realistic portrayal. In time however the dancing becomes more introspective, and the fluidity, control, and the angles of the movements in Chrissie Parrott’s choreography, and O’Hara’s execution of them, is breathtaking.

In all of this, one could overlook the fine performance of Shevtsov. His expressions and mannerisms are at times forlorn, at others desperate, but he also conveys with great subtlety the joy and pleasure that comes from the music surrounding him, even if it may come from within him, or from his past.

The music, song, and dance in this work create great ambiguity and Shevtsov’s character is most captivating in his moments of silence amongst it all. The powers, events, or people that may haunt him, to varying extents, inhabit us all. The sense of this has been captured with such brilliance through the unspoken, that it requires little elaboration, and certainly no verbal explanation. And so, when Shevtsov’s character finally speaks, it is in many ways a shame. His confession is not only unnecessary, it is comparatively unmoving, and a moment that should arguably be the work’s most poignant, is perhaps one of its weakest.

It is interesting to read that Lutton describes the main character’s journey in Die Winterreise, and one assumes his confrontation and confession of what haunts him, as his character finding a way “to continue existing.” Certainly at its end, the staging of this work suggests that this character is closing the door on his inner demons, but by now there is a sense of irreparable exhaustion, and given this, one can only think that his future will not be one of any greater quality than his present.

Although Die Winterreise doesn’t quite evoke the emotional response one would hope for, it is a mature and thought provoking work with fine performances, and is most certainly worth experiencing.

Malthouse Theatre & ThinIce present
Die Winterreise
Featuring songs by Franz Schubert | Original Text by Tom Holloway

Conceived & Directed by Matthew Lutton

Venue: Malthouse Theatre | 113 Sturt Street, Southbank 3006
Dates: 20 – 31 July, 2011
Tickets: $23 – $55 (plus booking fee)
Bookings: 03 9685 5111 | www.malthousetheatre.com.au

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