Photo – Darren Gill
The Top Secret Violin Case is presented by La Mama as part of Melbourne's Midsumma Festival. Described as an "absurdist dark comedy", this one hour show ambitiously sets out to tell a story of the struggle to be true to self. Be it a struggle to express your sexuality or your artistic talents. The struggle to think and act for yourself when oppressed by an authoritarian state and the price that can be paid.
The time is the 1970s, the place communist Romania under the brutal regime of Nicolau Ceausescu. The story is of musicians desiring only to play the music of their fore bears, wanting only to love and live how they choose.
It is a time when walls have ears and anyone and everything from "the west" is not to be trusted. This is recent history and though the Cold War is long over and the Iron Curtain torn down over a generation ago, the issues around state sanctioned denial of thought and deed are still, unfortunately, current. Spin the globe and your finger can still land on a country whose people can be killed simply for being themselves. And yet this piece is very doggedly interested in telling a very specific chapter of history that asks a lot if it is not a chapter you have read.
Written and created by Sofia Chapman, Violin Case is five years in the making, and inspired by several trips taken by Chapman and partner Alana Hunt to Eastern Europe to study music. Hunt says it "draws on experiences as queer people in a conservative, religious society." That seed of inspiration has been enveloped in a story taken from true events concerning a musician who, on capturing a western spy asks not for a monetary reward but rather to be allowed to make a record of Romanian folk music with his peers. So we take a journey to Romania with "Brad from Illinois" (Sasha Cuha). He wants to learn gypsy music from the best and he wants out of the stifling closet of the Mid West.
This journey of discovery overlaps with the wily machinations of self proclaimed Violin virtuoso Ionel Stocian (Alana Hunt) who wants only to form a band with Double bass player Tony Covaci (Kirri Buchler) and accordionist Nicu Valentino (Sofia Chapman). Only then would the State let him make a record.
There is ham fisted comedy and shallow drama. No one performance is strong, no collective performance transcends to engage. It is in the live music that the show is imbued with energy and engagement that the acting fails to provide. Collectively these three women are known as Melbourne based and world renowned music trio Vardos, formed over 20 years ago and lauded all over for their energetic performance of the gypsy folk Romany music of Eastern Europe. Unfortunately the exploration of this pocket of political / social history fails to be opened. There is a lack of wit and it is all delivered with a heavy hand.
What does endure and is so joyously shared is the music. I am none the wiser about Romania's recent past but was happily transported much further back in time and place through music so exotic from our own.
La Mama presents
The Top Secret Violin Case
by Sofia Chapman
Venue: La Mama Courthouse | 349 Drummond Street, Carlton VIC
Dates: 21 – 26 Jan 2020
Part of the 2020 Midsumma Festival