Lennox Theatre, September 24


jeremy res
Jeremy Rose. Photo: Sheshanka Samarajiwa.

The impetus is easy to understand. The youngish Jeremy Rose reads Robert Hughes’ The Fatal Shore and has his conception of his homeland turned on its head. Where was this in the school history syllabus? Last year Rose, a Sydney-based composer and jazz saxophonist, released a recording of Iron in the Blood, his musical response to Hughes’ book. Now here was the live premiere, and huge kudos to Riverside Theatres for presenting this ambitious work.

Performed by a 17-piece jazz orchestra and two actors, and accompanied by Mic Gruchy’s superbly complementary big-screen visuals, the work is a dialogue between idioms and eras. That dialogue exists between Hughes’ pivotal 1986 account of colonisation (that bravely debunked so much accepted history) and Rose’s contemporary reaction to that work, between composition and improvisation, and between musical idioms (including colonial folk).

Rose’s triumph is not just to have created a boldly imaginative 70-minute work, it is to shine a fresh spotlight on Hughes’ text by selecting especially poignant tracts of his succulent prose for actors Patrick Dickson and Michael Cullen to deliver with relish. This was the full-blooded writing of a big heart and potent intellect confronting the evil implicit in bringing 160,000 convicts here as tortured slave-labourers, and in committing unbounded atrocities against the continent’s first people, including genocide in Tasmania. Those quick to decry a “black-armband view of history” may fail to grasp that the point is not to wallow in guilt, but to understand the past and its implications, so wrongs might be confronted, addressed and avoided in the future.

Rose’s music is partially programmatic and partially operates in a jazz universe that runs parallel to Hughes’ masterpiece, carrying occasional echoes of Charles Mingus, who knew something about combining the musical expression of anger, stoicism, anguish, beauty and rambunctiousness. Rose also found his own ways of representing the cruelty implicit in a mindset that sought to expunge a “criminal class” not just from English society, but from an entire hemisphere.

Notable soloists included alto saxophonist Scott McConnachie, guitarist Ben Hauptmann and bassist Tom Botting. The volume was sometimes excessive, partly compounded by Rose’s tendency to use four trombones or trumpets where two might have sufficed to create a desired colour. But make no mistake: this is a major Australian work, and should be embraced by our key festivals.