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Newsletter 273

Published February 9, 2019
Kentridge's 'Wozzeck' - a challenging night at the Opera House

This has been one of those weeks in which I’ve done dozens of small tasks and seem to have achieved nothing. I’m sure you know the feeling. One of the problems was a mass of website glitches which I’m trying to cure once & for all with a major overhaul. As I know as little about the plumbing of the web as I do about the plumbing in my bathroom, all I can do is wait (impatiently) for a result.

I hope it doesn’t seem like I’ve worked off my frustrations in this week’s art column, which looks at the Pre-Raphaelites being shown at the National Gallery of Australia in the exhibition, Love & Desire. Of all the art movements in history I’ve always found the Pre-Raphaelites hardest to love. There’s something about the way they use colour, the obsessive detail, the rampant theatricality combined with false moralising. Anyway, you’ll see what I mean.

The movie being reviewed is On the Basis of Sex, the new bio pic of everybody’s favourite judge, Ruth Bader Ginsburg (unless you prefer Judge Jeanine, like President Trump). It’s not exactly the standard Hollywood hagiography because there’s so much legal argument included in the script. Ultimately it makes the law seem like a romantic, heroic affair – which will be news to anyone who’s ever sat through lectures on torts and contracts.

The most amazing thing I saw last week was neither an exhibition nor a movie, but William Kentridge’s production of Wozzeckat the Sydney Opera House. Although it’s not exactly the most cheerful piece in the repertoire, and Alban Berg was a composer who took no prisoners, it was the kind of spectacle that kept viewers continually scanning the stage to see what was coming next. Or trying to figure out what was going on in the darkest corners.

Georg Büchner wrote his play, Woyzeck, in the wake of the Napoleonic wars, while Berg’s opera was first performed in the years following World War I. The theme, quite simply is the dehumanising power of war, with Wozzeck as the ‘little man’ who has virtually nothing, and sees that brutally taken away from him.

In typical fashion Kentridge has done his research on the Napoleonic period, then expanded his scope to include a broad range of references, including many to his native South Africa. The set is virtually colourless but as active as a vast, animated charcoal line drawing. Shadowy figures parade in the background, characters balance on precarious walkways suspended over piles of wreckage. It’s almost too busy, too full-on, but never more extreme than Berg’s stark, jagged music. As Kentridge writes, “the stage became the world inside Wozzeck’s head”. I’m sure everyone left the theatre that night feeling that whatever was going on in their own heads, wasn’t so bad after all.