Desire and power: it’s a tale as old as time played out countlessly in the artist/muse dynamic. “Symphonie fantastique” by Hector Berlioz is one such example of a multi-layered attempt to capture the fluttering beauty of unrequited love. Using this 19th century composition as the inspiration, Little Eggs Collective inject some queer imaginary and disco fever for a hallucinatory story of revenge.
Under Mathew Lee’s direction, Symphonie Fantastique similarly centres the artist (LJ Wilson) as demanding, controlling, and self-destructive. They’re surrounded by their musical muses (Lloyd Allison-Young, Clare Hennessy, Nicole Pingon, Annie Stafford, and Chemon Theys) but they take a special shining to Cassie Hamilton’s character, who quickly and definitively rebuffs their advances. From here, a descent into desire, dreams, and violence.
What distinguishes this Symphonie is a queer lens, not only in the characters’ genders, but in a queer recontextualising that implicates these kinds of abuses and misuses of power across identities. At the same time, bringing queer relationships into the spotlight of these stories highlights the complexity of the queer identity and community where boundaries between fantasy and sexuality, play and power are blurred by the deviancy that underpins queerness. The messiness of these conversations becomes clear when every new accusation or disclosed “debauchery” surfaces. (The most recent against Alexander Wang come to mind.)
In terms of the design, all elements blended seamlessly to create an expansive, indulgent disco fantasy. The set and lighting design by Benjamin Brockman featured a square mirrored stage with mixes of bright white light and neon colours which flowed, reflected, undulated as if of their own accord. Costuming from Aleisa Jelbart drew from kink communities for the ensemble’s mostly black leather looks but with additional glitz in Hennessy and Allison-Young’s cowboy get-ups, perhaps in a nod to the queer country icon Little Nas X. Along with Musical Director Oliver Shermacher’s sound design, which included remixes of Berlioz’s original composition and extra bass-heavy bops, the design did excellent work to construct a distinct, electrifying atmosphere.
All of that being said, there was room for emphasis and expansion. In every reference to queer performance and culture, the moments were fleeting or felt reserved. If you’re going to bring up leather kink, queer cowboys, or camp then give risqué, raunchy, grotesque. Give more pleasure, more pain; something to flinch away from. Go all the way into queer excellence, queer extraordinary, queer excess.
As is customary with Little Eggs Collective, the ensemble was second to none. Movement coach Grace Stamnas with the ensemble devised an unusual, evocative choreography that was performed with expert precision. The muses moved with a psychic awareness of each other and their sensorial world. In this particular production, there were moments when the ensemble’s talents didn’t feel harnessed to their full potential, like in the extended physical comedy of Theys as a sheep. But they were strongest in moments like Wilson’s ritualised comeuppance as Pingon beat out a harrowing death march and the rest mimed as a unified machine.
The only hurdle at which the production could be said to have fallen down was the narrative and, specifically, the villain. Wilson’s characterisation of the abuser as made up largely of being out of breath was repetitive and unrealistic. This reimagined Berlioz lacked nuance and failed to match the complexity of the rest of the production, which severely hollowed out Lee’s interests in the power dynamics of queer relationships and the impact of abuses of power.
The ideas of Symphonie Fantastique were evocative and alluring with a clear grasp of the culture of queer performance it falls into and it was performed close to perfectly. It can’t really be a true critique to leave merely wanting more.
Symphonie Fantastique is running at Kings Cross Theatre from February 17th – 27th
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