The show must go on: Belvoir & Sisters Grimm’s La Traviata

Billed as “part opera, part protest, part drag show,” Sisters Grimm’s La Traviata – co-produced with Belvoir, and playing in Belvoir’s Downstairs theatre – is a curious mash-up of Verdi’s opera (which was recently playing in Sydney), protest against the recent cuts to arts funding, and awkwardly gratuitous breaking of the fourth wall. Unlike Sisters Grimm’s other shows – Summertime in the Garden of Eden in particular – their customary verve for “queer DIY drag-theatre” does not quite shine here, and I’m not sure if this production is as powerful yet as it could be, as it is intended to be.

Directed by Declan Greene, and created by Greene, Ash Flanders, Zindzi Okenyo, Emma Maye Gibson, and Michael Lewis, this Traviata roughly follows the plot of Verdi’s opera, thanks to scrolling LED boards in the walls of the theatre (if you don’t know the opera, think Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge!, and you’re halfway there already). We open on the set of a raucous studio-bound infomercial to the deliciously travestied sounds of Verdi’s ‘Brindisi,’ before descending into a hyperactive discussion of the nature of corporate sponsorship of the arts – ‘just picture it, opera in jeans… three hours of prime product-placement…’ Scene Two shows Sisters Grimm at their most wildly inventive, in Violetta’s country house outside of Paris, where designer Marg Horwell is given free reign to her imagination and lets it run wild. Penniless and abandoned by her lover, Violetta returns to doing what she did before – a largely self-indulgent display of dancing and performance art – before her lover returns, insulting her. The final scenes see the actors returning as themselves to facilitate an open discussion about art, the ideas of the opera-cum-play, and life – before Violetta returns, sings her final aria, and dies.
Where this show succeeds is in the design from Marg Horwell’s fertile imagination of the pastoral (or “past oral” as it is memorably described as) and her costumes (I don’t think I’ve seen a more memorable sheep on stage since As You Like It), as much as in its interrogation of the ideas behind the creation of the production, rather than in their presentation within the production. Taking a leaf from Verdi and Francesco Maria Piave’s opera, Sisters Grimm take aim at corporate sponsorship of the arts, artistic corruption, ideological hypocrisy, capitalism, commodification of ideas or art, and above all freedom, albeit with mixed success. The third scene – Violetta’s return to her old life – can be read as an attack on the cuts to arts funding and the creation of the National Program for Excellence in the Arts. It is indulgent, yes, and it certainly goes on for too long (with a few too many repetitions of the ‘Queen of the Night’ aria), but it is an indictment of what is to come, if experimentation, innovation, and politically inquisitive work is compromised or denied funding outright. In many ways, every person who has committed to being an artist in whatever form – whether it be visual arts, sculpture, performance art, writers, theatre-makers, actors; anyone who works within the arts as an industry – is essentially Violetta. We are all compromised in our quest for artistic freedom and the exploration of an artistic utopic ideal; like Violetta, we are ultimately martyred for our beliefs. As Ash Flanders says, it’s about “where money comes from to fund the arts, what artists have a right to say yes or no to in accepting public money. What is the value of art, what is the value of opera.” These are without a doubt big questions, but I don’t think Sisters Grimm and their collaborators on this production quite rise to the challenge.

It’s certainly ironic – as Declan Greene writes in the program – that “if Senator Brandis had set up his NPEA in 19th-century Venice, a work as socially radical as Verdi’s La Traviata might never have been made at all.” And this irony certainly isn’t lost on Sisters Grimm and/or Belvoir in programming and creating this production. However, if this is to truly examine the issues associated with maintaining artistic integrity in compromising times, then I think it needs to be a little bit sharper, a little more pointed; not necessarily in spelling out its targets or intentions, but in its shape and structure, the way it unfolds and how it says what it does. While the final moments – sung with passion and tenderness by Michael Lewis in a red dress and lipstick – are quite moving, the rest of the production is less assured and less clear-sighted, though hopefully this will tighten up as the season progresses. 

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