There is nothing like a ghastly war, an inscrutable election and a great rush of entertainment high and low to encourage the illusion that the plague time is over.
Hamilton came to Melbourne last week with a crescendoing blast and with a party at the State Library that had vast quantities of food and grog and a bar in the very midst of those green reading lamps that have always betokened a city’s devotion to the grandeur of reading in this place so endowed by Redmond Barry, the judge who sentenced Ned Kelly – even if it was Ned who won the such-is-life stakes with an entry about him in the great 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Certainly there was a great swag of young bushrangers, female and male at the party, a discernible fraction of them in long ambivalent gowns, but it was very much a party for youth kicking on in defiance as if no virus ever struck.
And Hamilton itself with all its mighty and majestic success is a show that divides the devotees from the agnostics young and old. All the pattering, rapping, hip-hop circularities of logic and drama are instantly intelligible if you’ve spent some fraction of your life absorbing the infectiously complex, brilliant score. But if you haven’t, if you come to it cold or coolish – as perhaps only a smaller fraction of the audience did – the actual lyrics will be hard to follow and a fair part of the dramatic action as well. It was easy to forget reports of this happening to parents of besotted cognoscenti kids who saw Hamilton on Broadway or in the West End: or, indeed, when such places were shut, of the fact that the Disney transcription on television required subtitles.
None of this is to deny the magnetism of Hamilton and the way Lin Manuel Miranda’s adaptation of rap and all its cousins reinvented the very idiom of what was possible in musical theatre.
And all this razzle-dazzle of American history reconfigured with all those sinuous Afro-American actors taking on the very mantle of early Independence America in the tight and swirling drama of how Aaron Burr came to shoot that founding father who has always been cloaked from historical consciousness – unlike Jefferson and Washington, say – Alexander Hamilton. On the opening night, Jason Arrow as Hamilton seemed a bit quiet for the demands of a role that is all presence and authority and the power to conjure though there were those who thought he was superior to Lin Manuel Miranda.
Certainly, Lyndon Watts as Aaron Burr, caught the tragic ambivalence of the fated assassin and there was no denying that Victory Ndukwe as Jefferson, the man who more or less invented American democracy by articulating it, was very fine. Ndukwe also played Lafayette who was as dashing as you would want him to be in that costume to die for adaptation with its co-ordinated navies and whites. And two female leads shone. Anika Edmonds as Angelica and Tigist Strode who played Eliza on the night were both superb with the right ballast and emotional complexity. George III’s looney tune ‘You’ll Be Back’ was done with an undoubted gusto by Brent Ashley Hill but he milked this star turn of vaunted nutcase villany within an inch of its life.
Life, though, radiated every aspect of Hamilton even more than the art which is palpable in every twisting bit of jive and scat that makes this the most original Broadway musical since My Fair Lady if not Oklahoma!.
What Lin Manuel Miranda did in Hamilton was to reconstitute the American musical with a virtually Sophoclean power of design. Nothing about musical theatre could ever be the same after this. And that would remain true whether or not you liked Hamilton. In practice, you had to master virtually every tricky twist and turn of how the hip-hop argot was executing the exposition for the experience to work at all so it was a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy. In any case, the Melbourne first night had the audience roaring with delight at least as much for the life everyone was affirming as for the art which was shaping the razzamatazz. Dylan Alcott was there, as was the Premier but it might have been nice to see Gamble Breaux, that sumptuous Melbourne housewife.
How strange, though, a few nights later to see at the Fairfax, Gary Abrahams’ adaptation of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Yentl. Abrahams’ production of Admissions left some of us cold and furious despite the presence of Kat Stewart who is as fine an actress as this country has produced. Yentl is like nothing on earth. Much of the two-and-a-half-hour play presented by the Kadimah Yiddish Theatre is in Yiddish – the dialectal residually Germanic language Singer wrote in – and for eyesight challenged even from row E much of it couldn’t be read in surtitles though you got the gist of Kabbalah and quackery. There was the great Evelyn Krape as this generic shape-shifting witch figure donning hats, donning horns, with intimations of God knows what. And there beside her was Jana Zvedeniuk as Yentl, the young girl disguised as a boy, through all the tortuous metamorphosing and mystagoguery of a scintillating bewilderment of an exposition. It was a star-is-born moment. Jana Zvedenuik is a marvel. She moves like a boy, she moves like a girl, she is transfiguring, she is transfixing, the finest exhibition of the highest kind of histrionic skills since the debut of Christie Whelan Browne if not the young Cate Blanchett. And thank the God of Hebrew wisdom that Gary Abrahams directs with a wiry brilliance and Krape gives as uncanny a performance as she has ever given.
From there to Fauré’s Requiem at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. It was a thing of wonder to see the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and Chorus under the baton of Warren Trevelyan-Jones. The two soloists, Elspeth Bawden who sings the ‘Pie Jesu’ and Stephen Marsh who does the ‘Libera me’ sing with a breathtaking authority and grace. And the great neo-Gothic cathedral of Daniel Mannix never looked closer to its ancient destiny.
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