It is rare indeed to attend a work whose dramatic place is less than a kilometre from its place of staging. In 1972 the Englishman Dr Duncan was bashed and murdered in a homophobic act, thrown into the river Torrens under Frome street Bridge, just upriver from the Festival Centre.

The work Watershed, with music by Joseph Twist to a libretto by Alana Valentine and Christos Tsiolkas, deals with this murder and its aftermath. It is described as an oratorio. As they say, oratorio is traditionally a form dealing with sacred subjects, but this work, a vehement plea for the acceptance of homosexuality in our society, lends itself to comparison with Michael Tippett’s A Child of Our Time, a work performed at last year’s Adelaide Festival. Both works are strong pleas, in the case of Tippett’s against anti-semitism, and both are secular in scope.

Both works seem to me flawed, those flaws deriving at least in part from the difficulty of entering these areas of social discourse both polemically and musically. Yet both exert great power, and this power overrides the flaws to a large extent.

Watershed derives its title from the fact that it took something as horrific as Duncan’s murder to wake people up to the violence homophobia could and did generate. The murder was a watershed in the history of acceptance of homosexuality in Australia. But is “oratorio” a good description of it? Perhaps it doesn’t matter; but in this, its premiere performance, it was, unlike most oratorios, staged or semi-staged, and directed by Neil Armfield. The chorus and most of the characters were taken from the ranks of the Adelaide Chamber singers, and they were accompanied by a small orchestra ably conducted by the director of the Chamber Singers, Christie Anderson.

The dancer Mason Kelly acted the part of Duncan at the scene of the murder. He was suspended from the flats, and superbly represented the apprehension, shame, and terror felt by Duncan as the bullies closed in on him and threw him in the river. And at the conclusion of the work he was lifted up on the same rope, a fine symbolic gesture that his death had not been in vain.

The principal characters were sung by Pelham Andrews, as Mick O'Shea, a Cop and the Lawyer; Ainsley Melham as the Lost Boy; and Mark Oates as Duncan and the South Australian Premier Don Dunstan. Melham’s tenor was often moving, though his stage presence left something to be desired. Andrews sang all of his characters in a similar way, though his bass voice is gorgeous. I would single out Mark Oates as the stand-out singer here. He was a completely different vocal character when singing the prt of Don Dunstan from that which he embodied as Duncan. I could hear every word. When he sang, as Duncan, “I do not identify as a homosexual” several times over at the start of the work, each reiteration had a different emphasis, really well controlled.

The work is a series of set pieces, similar to a traditional oratorio. For the first half, dealing with the death of Duncan and the decriminalisation of homosexuality in South Australia three years later, the action and music flowed together in a very satisfying way. For the second half, dealing with the rugged path that followed for homosexuals, from then until now really, the structure of the piece was too episodic to have that sense of direction, and although Armfield’s direction was tight, the episodic nature of this part of the work was impossible to conceal. I thought the concluding scene was a bit drawn out – I had got the point well before the end. But Armfield’s final elevation of Duncan, acted by Mason, gave a finality to the action that I needed.

Joseph Twist’s musical idiom is extremely simple, and has wide appeal. For my part, I found some aspects of the music too unvarying to sustain my interest for the almost 2 hours of theatre. His choral writing is relentlessly homophonic; he seems to abhor the very idea of counterpoint. And it’s all a bit too triadic to generate much tension. He can write powerful melodic lines, as in the Lost Boy’s song “Shame turns to rage”, but the contrast between solo song and choral homophony soon became predictable and therefore unexciting to me.

Nonetheless, Watershed is an important and powerful work, and I hope it receives many more performances.

Event details

2022 Adelaide Festival
Watershed: The Death of Dr Duncan
composer Joseph Twist | libretto Alana Valentine & Christos Tsiolkas

Director Neil Armfield

Venue: Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre
Dates: 2 – 8 March 2022
Tickets: $99 – $55
Bookings: www.adelaidefestival.com.au

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