La Traviata

Belvoir Downstairs Theatre, August 29

La Trav res
Ash Flanders and Emma Maye Gibson. Photo: Patrick Boland.

Verdi’s Violetta got off lightly. She merely died of consumption at the end of his La Traviata. The Violetta in this reinvention by Sisters Grimm (Ash Flanders and Declan Greene) dies the much slower and more horrible death of struggling to hold an audience.

In the program Greene and Flanders outline just how revolutionary La Traviata was in 1853 with its high-Romantic ideals and implicit critique of hypocrisy. They ponder the nature and point of art, and question the impact of Senator Brandis fleecing the Australia Council of $104.5 million for his own office to dole out. It’s all good stuff, and they hypothesise a comparably radical work to shake up the corporatised artistic landscape of contemporary Australia.

Except that this isn’t it.

All the intellectual rigour of the essay is forsaken in favour of an undergraduate melange that is by turns asinine, funny, boring and, against all expectations, poignant.

The opening, in which Flanders, Emma Maye Gibson and Zindzi Okenyo try to sell the corporate world on the idea of downmarket opera, is as devoid of wit or insight as it is loud and brash. Just when it is looking like a long night the show redeems itself with Gibson (Violetta), Okenyo (Alfredo) and the renowned baritone Michael Lewis (Giorgio) miming the singing of much Traviata’s Act II. This is genuinely funny, the pastoral setting replete with outrageous costumes, sheep, puffy white clouds and an inflatable swan. Nothing unusual there, you might say – other than the giraffe skeleton.

Via a metaphor-laden solo turn from Gibson a question-and-answer segment with the audience lowers the bar to Q&A twitter-feed tedium, saved only by Lewis’s very personal story of major illness. He then becomes Violetta in red gown and lipstick, and sings her deathbed aria a cappella, stopping us dead in our tracks.

Questioning art’s nature and function and its relationship to the polity is commendable, but must the upshot be as slapdash as the worst experimental theatre of the 1970s?

Until September 20.