Nearly 100 years ago, the end of the Roaring 20s, when the glittering world of debauchery was crumbling, the sheen of a post-war Europe fading, collaborators Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht wrote into the dingy, decrepit spaces of fallen empires, imagining the immorality that thrived in these shadows.
The Old Fitz Theatre is renowned as an impossibly small, impossibly conceived theatre space under which constraints the theatrical minds of Sydney generate remarkable creativity and imagination. It’s the perfect environment for the double bill dreamt up by director Constantine Costi of the “sung ballet” The Seven Deadly Sins (translated by Michael Feingold) and the “scenic cantata” The Mahagonny Songspiel with compositions by Kurt Weill and lyrics by Bertolt Brecht and Elisabeth Hauptmann. Both pieces tell stories of decay as grand dreams turn to dust. As such, set designer Charles Davis gussied-up the space with garish turquoise paint and a touch of beads and tinsel to recreate a declining dive-bar while lighting designer Trent Suidgeest went all-out with colour to add another layer of karaoke-kitsch to the proceedings. But in a customary balancing of professional and ramshackle, Red Line Productions have impressively managed to fit a live orchestra of musicians from Ensemble Apex stacked on the back wall with the conductor Brian Castles-Onion AM or Simon Bruckard squeezed into the backstage-exit corridor.
In The Seven Deadly Sins, twin sisters Anna (Margaret Trubiano) and Anna (Allie Graham) are touring wider America as performers, sending money back to their family on the banks of the Mississippi River. Over seven years, the sisters dance their way through the list of sins in a satirical critique of modernity’s hypocrisy and immorality. At home, their family (Nicholas Jones, Benjamin Rasheed, Andy Moran, and Anthony Mackey) chide them for their weaknesses while eating McDonald’s and counting stacks of dollar bills.
Trubiano, as the voice of the pair, gave a full and resounding performance even while shooing her sister further into sin; giving up her pride to perform more lasciviously and forgoing love for more fortune. Graham moved through Shannon Burns’s choreography like a marionette cut from its strings, mixing slinky with unexpected dips, breaks, and bends for an unnerving and captivating performance. Particularly in the epilogue, the dynamic between Trubiano’s upright, unyielding Anna and her martyred sister was uncomfortable as Graham began to decompose, exposing herself through manic and uncanny facial contortions.
Following, The Mahagonny Songspiel was like an after-party of sorts as the performers stripped their costumes (designed by Emma White) for clashing animal print, sequins, and feathers. Roberta Diamond joined the ensemble to sing of the once great city of Mahagonny as some orchestra members packed up their instruments and left for the night. Across six songs they sung through drunkenness including an unusual chant “For if we don’t find the next whisky bar, I tell you we must die”. In the ebb and flow of the night’s revelry, the performers once again stripped off and fell into a stupor before Graham, isolated on stage, succumbed once again to the violent energy in the air, shaking and agitating her body as darkness finally put an end to the show.
Across the two pieces, the performances were strong for the vacillation between affectlessness and a sneering over-exuberance which were both equally eerie. Costi, from the production design to the staging to the very conceit of the production had managed to capture the pressurised political mode of Weill/Brecht while finding the resonance between the artistic atmosphere of the early 20th century and today. While Australia doesn’t have World War II looming, we do live in a new kind of globalisation where the horrors of Ukraine, Syria, Palestine, or others are transmitted to our homes all while those homes are destroyed by increasingly severe natural catastrophes. And yet our artists face another national budget of funding cuts and deliberate austerity despite audiences repeatedly turning to the arts for solace and entertainment. Together, The Seven Deadly Sins and The Mahagonny Songspiel painted extreme pictures of human despicableness but with a mesmerising, shimmering facade that only emphasised the hollow cheapness of performativity, reputation, and high social standing. It’s the kind of ugliness you can’t turn away from.
The Seven Deadly Sins & The Mahagonny Songspiel are running at the Old Fitz Theatre from April 2nd – 23rd
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