Perth Festival Diary #1: Siren Song and Hand Stories
“There’s a festival on at the moment,” the desk clerk warned me morosely as he checked me into my hotel. “Please be aware that at 6am there is an event called Siren Song, which you will be able to hear from your room.”
“Excellent,” I said, resolving to be present. “I’m looking forward to it.”
Alas, the best-laid plans of mice and critics gang aft agley. The following morning, wrestling with the dislocated wakefulness of interstate jetlag, I heard otherworldly voices resonating through my hotel room. For a moment, until I remembered the clerk’s warning and snapped into focus, I thought I was dreaming. And then, before I was ready, the voices went silent.
In the liminal state between sleep and not-sleep, its beauty felt uncanny, not least because I couldn’t source the direction of the sound. Siren Song was broadcast from 400 speakers at the tops of the skyscrapers along St George’s Terrace, so the voices seemed to “descend from the sky”. A collaboration between sound artist Byron J. Scullin and the duo Supple Fox (Tom Supple and Hannah Fox) the event lasts for exactly the time that it takes for the sun’s disc to clear the horizon and repeats again at evenfall.
The concept has a kind of magnificent uselessness, the ambiguous subversion of beauty. Perhaps those who stumbled across it, lying wakeful in their hotel rooms like me or hurrying to work or some breakfast business meeting, were shocked out of the everyday commercial world into a moment of attention.
There are many versions of the siren story. In around 750BCE, Hesiod named three of them in his Catalogue of Women, and said their voices “charmed even the wind”. In some versions they are handmaidens of Persephone (daughter of Demeter, goddess of the earth) who were transformed into sparrows with women’s faces as punishment for permitting Persephone to be kidnapped by the god of the Underworld.
By the 1000AD, with the triumph of Christianity, the misogyny was cemented in. Byzantine scholar Suidas reported: “Mythologers say that they were little birds with women’s faces who beguiled sailors as they passed by, bewitching with lewd songs the hearing of those harkening to them. And the song of pleasure has no good consequence, only death.” By the 19thC, they were most often depicted as naked women with no trace of bird form, metaphors for the thrall of female sexuality that distracts and destroys men.
And now? Perhaps these disembodied voices, the song of the semi-human that draws our attention to the natural world, still holds its fatal beauty. But now its ambiguous warning is a reminder of the potency of what we, as a species, have forgotten to value: the sunrise, the turning of the planet, the forces of the non-human world. We have forgotten to pay attention and now its rhythms are changing, and may destroy us.
I had to imagine its effect on the empty Sunday morning streets of Perth: what I heard was the final dawn chorus. Later that day I wandered down St Georges Terrace, the centre of Perth’s financial district. It’s a brash streetscape of polished stone and glass, the confident facade of corporate capital. Almost all these shining developments are plastered with “for lease” signs. Western Australia was the only state to record negative growth in 2016/17, as declining mining investment – a fall of 28 per cent in that financial year – began to take effect. The feeling of impending bust is palpable.
Some of that gold poured into the Perth Festival’s coffers: for several years, thanks to generous State Government funding and sponsorship, it was by far the most lavishly funded arts festival in Australia. At its height in 2015, then festival director Jonathan Holloway had $22.5 million to play with. This year. artistic director Wendy Martin has a total budget, including ticket sales, of $15.5 million, with its major funding source, Lotterywest, expected to diminish further. Just before Christmas, the McGowan government announced cuts to many arts, education and environment programs, including a cut to the Perth Festival over three years of $318,000.
The sirens were the only women’s voices I heard in performance last weekend. The three shows I saw – Inua Ellams’ Barber Shop Chronicles, Evgeny Grishkovets’ Farewell to Paper (of which more later) and Yeung Fai’s Hand Stories – were all about men.
Yeung Fai is a fifth generation puppeteer, trained from the age of four in a tradition that is handed down from father to son. Hand Stories is an autobiographical work that traces his family story through the tumults of the Cultural Revolution and the democracy protests of Tiananmen Square. Yeung now lives in Paris, where he leads his own troupe of puppeteers.
Hand Stories traces the often fragile process of transmitting knowledge, and is itself a demonstration of how artforms change and adapt to their times. Chinese puppetry stretches back centuries to the Han Dynasty (206BC-AD220), and the glove puppetry Yeung practices originated during the 17th century in Quanzhou, Fujian Province. Yeung fled China after Tiananmen, moving between Bolivia, Hong Kong and France, where he was exposed to contemporary Western techniques which he began to incorporate into his own work. Hand Stories is a charming and often moving meld of both Western and Chinese theatrical techniques.
A panel backstage uses video art by Yilan Yeh that morphs from an abstracted, animated silkscreen to documentary images of the Tiananmen Square to footage of Yeung’s father practising his art in the 1950s. The show begins with Yeung concentratedly practising the demanding hand-stretching techniques that his art demands.
The results are profoundly expressive: as soon as the puppets are in motion, you’re invested in their reality. It really is a kind of magic, the empathetic transference that puppetry can evoke. And the detail of gesture is extraordinary.
It’s fascinating to see how the Chinese glove puppet tradition parallels Punch and Judy shows. Punch and Judy emerged in 18thC Europe from the folk Italian theatre tradition commedia dell’arte. Punch derives from the stock character Pulcinella, who is a manifestation of the Lord of Misrule and other trickster figures. As with Punch and Judy, Chinese glove puppets use stock characters and stories, vulgar jokes and comic violence. Instead of a crocodile devouring characters there’s a tiger, and Yeung’s characters duel, flirt, beat each other up and fart on each other. But the techniques that animate the Chinese glove puppets are particular and refined: the detail of gesture is extraordinary.
Western-style puppets portray Yeung’s family – his father, Yang Shen, whose humiliation and imprisonment and eventual death during the Cultural Revolution was a formative influence on Yeung’s life; his brother, who initially taught him; and then Yeung himself, and his exile in 1984. After a period of despair and disillusionment, he found an audience and finally an apprentice (Yoann Pencolé, his co-performer) who will continue the tradition.
Yeung’s story is told through allusion and metaphor – political upheaval, for instance, is represented by a silver dragon snaking in through the darkness, and Freddy Mercury makes an unexpected appearance as a kind of guardian angel – moving with suppleness between comic and poignant modes. The highlight is when the puppet theatre is turned around so we can witness the organised bedlam behind the stage as Yeung and Pencolé perform, as the front-stage view is projected above them. Somehow seeing the machinery at work only intensifies the illusion.
Siren Song, by Byron J. Scullin and Supple Fox, Perth Festival, February 10-18.
Hand Stories, by Yeung Fai. Performed by Yeung Fai and Yoann Pencolé. Lighting design by Christophe Kehrli, music by Colin Offord, video by Yilan Yeh. Dolphins Theatre, Perth Festival, February 14-17.
Alison Croggon flew to Perth as a guest of the Perth Festival