Gothic has strong moments but ultimately feels like a superficial exploration of the genre, says First Nations Emerging Critic and goth fan Carissa Lee
For the majority of Andrée Greenwell’s theatrical concert Gothic, we are taken into dark corners of life most people try not to think about: stories of deaths, derangement, drug overdoses, hauntings by unknown spirits. The landscape of the gothic imagination.
Greenwell has a gift for composing and adapting works around dark themes. In June this year, she released a collection of songs, spoken word poems and music in response to the debate in Australia about violence against women. As artistic director and composer of Green Room Music, and the 2017 recipient of the Australia Council for the Arts Music Fellowship, she has worked with companies such as Sydney Theatre Company, Symphony Australia, Australian Dance Theatre, Bell Shakespeare, Belvoir and Queensland Music Festival.
Gothic originally debuted in 2015, and the album was recorded in 2016 (it’s available on Spotify and Soundcloud) and was remounted for a one-time performance at the Melbourne Arts Centre. Greenwell introduces the gothic theme with a song based on the poem Annabel Lee by Edgar Allan Poe. This is a strong start: we are transported to a cliff beside an ocean, watching a woman fall victim to illness, leaving her devoted lover behind. The lilt in Greenwell’s voice expresses the pain in these tragic tales, complemented by the bittersweet strings. (Violins: Andrea Keeble and Kylie Morrigan; Viola: Joshua Stillwell; Cello: Noella Yan).
Alison Croggon’s The Orpheus Song and Hilary Bell’s The Birds are the strongest musical adaptions in Gothic’s collection. Both O’Donaghue and Greenwell’s voices take us through the gorgeous imagery of their terrifying circumstances. O’Donoghue’s performance of The Birds delivers a mixture of spoken word and song, accompanied by the painful plucking of violins. The imagery of wounds pecked freshly open again by predatory birds is somehow beautiful while making your skin crawl. Kate Bush’s classic Wuthering Heights is performed with dark fleeting romance and delivers a gorgeous moment of nostalgia within this show’s dark repertoire.
The operatic range of Jessica O’Donoghue contributes a beautiful vocal versatility, making her a perfect choice for the German hymn Maria Walks Amid the Thorns. The audio design and electronica from David Trumpmanis and Greenwell work well with the weightier bass-oriented songs, but some accompanying sound effects – wolves howling, creepy laughing, choir bells and childrens’ voices – feel oddly placed and, sometimes, a bit tacky.
Unfortunately, the cheap attempts at gothic aesthetic don’t end there. Not all the songs necessarily translate into the genre of gothic. Michaela French’s video projections at the back of the stage are all tacky, and often present odd choices. The projections are seen through a reverse-silhouette of gothic window frames. This is effective, until we see the animations that are to be our “view”, when some of them begin to feel like a bad screen saver: cartoonish ghost children in a landscape of a dark city; a red line running continuously; fragmented text, like a powerpoint presentation, or footage of silent movies such as Nosferatu (during Thriller, of all songs).
Hugo Race’s Australian gothic classic, Death at the Beach Motel, didn’t come across for me. I’m wondering if I just couldn’t suspend belief enough to process Greenwell telling this story: maybe her voice simply didn’t suit the story of a doomed heroin addict, or perhaps it just seemed a bit voyeuristic for a white middle-class person to be singing it for a predominantly white middle-class audience. Other adaptions that didn’t work were Poe’s The Bells; its translation to song came across as merely repetitive and didn’t gel in this form. Michael Jackson’s Thriller felt really cheesy, and not even remotely gothic.
A lack of focus contributed to the loss of gothic theatricality in some of the performances. O’Donaghue and the accompanying musicians were present at all times, honouring the mood of the production through their sombre attention, even when they weren’t performing. When O’Donoghue was singing, she allowed herself to embody the stories she was relating, cowering in moments of fear, revelling in the tragic, and maintaining a heightened sense of performance even while hitting those insanely high notes. Greenwell began strongly, particularly when performing Croggon’s The Orpheus Song, but as the show went on times her attention wandered to the screen at the back of the stage, or watching her accompanying performers as if she wanted them to be done already.
Although the narratives were present in the songs, I feel like the show could have benefited from more introductions to link the show together, to help us feel more as if we are being taken on a journey through a myriad of dark stories. Although the program gives some small insights into the stories behind the songs, it seemed odd that the time was not taken to share them more thoroughly.
The uneven choices contributed to a feeling of uncertainty around the show’s theme – is it horror, complete with cheesy images and sound effects, or a journey through dark stories of cruelty? It felt as if it didn’t really reach into the romantic, tragic and macabre world of gothic culture. There were people in proper gothic dress in the audience who left during the performance, and I wonder if they too felt that Gothic was a superficial exploration of a genre that deserves much deeper attention. There is no exploration of what it means to be in love with the darkness, although historically it was the only thing that kept some writers, artists and other creators making work. In the present time, dark narratives and gentle horror stories still give people hope. Gothic goes beyond wearing black and talking about death. It’s another kind of love.
Gothic, composition and arrangements by Andree Greenwell, original lyrics by Hilary Bell, Alison Croggon, Maryanne Lynch, Felicity Plunkett, and Hugo Race. Visual projection design and animation by Michaela French. Screen and lighting design by Neil Simpson. Audio design and electronica by David Trumpmanis and Andree Greenwell. Performed by Vocalists Jessica O’Donoghue and Andree Greenwell, Violins by Andrea Keeble and Kylie Morrigan, Viola by Joshua Stilwell, Cello by Noella Yan, Electric Guitar and on-stage audio by David Trumpmanis. Gothic at the Melbourne Arts Centre.
Disclosure: A poem adapted in this show was written by Alison Croggon, editor of Witness