Evolution, Revolution and the Mail Order BrideLeft – Zulya Kamalova. Photos – Sarah Walker

fortyfivedownstairs is one of those spaces that lends itself to atmosphere. Want to create a moody and evocative environment for your play? Put it on here. Evolution, Revolution and the Mail Order Bride by Zulya Kamalova, makes beautiful use of the space. A great pile of old stuff dominates the set, telling us that history and the detritus of lives will inform this work. Lighting and backdrop, including ravishing video images of the past, create a beautiful and worthy set, we have a mini orchestra comprising violin, electric mandolin, cello, piano, trombone – everything you need provided by musicians of calibre. And the girl, Kamalova, can sing, in terms of reaching those notes, she delivers. Kamalova is at her best with the witchy-poo, haunting, gothic Wendy Rule/Diamanda Galas style of singing; she's not so hot with the more genre based styles. I didn't love the timbre of her voice outside the delivery of the monstrous feminine vocals, but there's no doubting her musicality.

This show would be more interesting if we had real personalities to relate to, if we'd seen on a concrete level how women, the initial momentum for the October revolution, were sold out by the aparatchniks. It is what she aspires to, after all: the story of the betrayed feminine. The same thing has happened with every single revolution all over the world, from the theological revolution in Iran where feminists threw themselves behind the Islamists only to see the closure of girls' schools and the legal age for marriage brought down to nine, to the more subtle anti-feminist permutations and ramifications of the sexual revolution in the west. This show, rather than sitting uneasily between the personal and political as it does, could go much deeper and much further with individual stories. It limits itself to the portrayal of three versions of the feminine: the witch (and I would love to know more about how this female archetype plays out in Russia now, given how much we hear of their bizarre influence), the revolutionary and the modern woman. Unfortunately, Kamalova gives us cardboard women, not individuals even though at least one of the characters is based in history.

When I go to the theatre I don't want a history lesson, no matter how ravishing the presentation. You can't fault the design, the aesthetics or the music of this show; Zulya is gorgeous, reminiscent of a young Sharon Stone, but this isn't enough, I want concrete, sensory detail. There were some nice moments of theatricality, the diorama with Adam and Eve, for instance, but it was all very slow moving. I shouldn't have been bored by this show, the subject matter raises my blood pressure, after all – but I was. Music aside ( I'm only talking about the theatrics here), the show is staid; I learnt nothing new, I wasn't moved by the characters or their stories. Kamalova is a singer and a cabaret artist but she's not a writer. The show-don't-tell dictum is bypassed here so what you get in terms of performance is someone telling stories, inviting you to care but, really, giving you nothing to care about. Had this been presented with less self-conscious worthiness and more joy in the really lovely musical arrangements, I might have bought it. As it is, despite the redoubtable Maude Davey's direction, this show is too full of its own self-importance to let you enjoy it. Musically speaking, though, and we have Erkki Veltheim to thank for this, it's a treat. Really. 

Evolution, Revolution and The Mail Order Bride
by Zulya Kamalova

Director Maude Davey

Venue: fortyfivedownstairs | 45 Flinders Lane, Melbourne
Dates: 5 – 16 February 2014
Times: 8pm Tue – Sat, 5pm Sun
Tickets: $35 – $30
Bookings: 03 9660 9966 | fortyfivedownstairs.com

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