15 October 2008

Book of Longing

MIAF 2008
Book of Longing
Melbourne International Arts Festival
15 October 2008
State Theatre, the Arts Centre

“I follow the chorus from chaos to art.” (Leonard Cohen). Every time I think Philip Glass is becoming his own cliché, I see something new and fall in love all over again. Book of Longing is an impeccable night of theatre and one of my festival highlights.

I love Glass best when he’s working with voices and words. (Perhaps because I can kind of sing along at home). This concert quickly reminded me of his 1986 album ‘Songs from Liquid Days’, where he composed to lyrics from Paul Simon, Suzanne Vega, David Byrne and Laurie Anderson. And a look on my copy reveals that the music director of Book of Longing, Michael Riesman, also worked on this album.

Book of Longing is composed to the poetry of Leonard Cohen. By letting us listen to the words against a familiar soundscape, the almost predictable sound of Glass gives a remarkable clarity and perspective to Cohen’s poetry. Glass even says the work “starts with words and almost every musical decision is made in view of the words”.

What takes this event beyond a concert experience is Susan Marshall’s stage direction. With a natural costume design, which looks like everyone chose their own outfit, a simple lighting design and Glass’s song cycle structure, the evening flows effortlessly. The four singers move on and off the stage, among the musicians (including Glass) and simply sing the words. By not acting them out, the power of the words themselves becomes stronger and their impact greater.

A scaffold mosaic backdrop of Cohen’s artwork brings a very visual dimension to the night. Mostly self-portraits, nudes, guitars and birds, Cohen’s art work seems quite naïve and simplistic compared to his words, but they show his thought process and Christine Jones’s design brings a wholeness to the stage.

Finally, I’ll leave Cohen to describe Book of Longing. He said, “With no apprehension whatsoever I presented Philip with a book of poems and he presented me with this really stunning evening of theatre. There’s something quirky, something eccentric about Book of Longing. It seems to have an intimacy of thought and experience, and I feel that it embodies a new kind of sensibility.”

Really, there’s nothing more I can add. I loved it and can see it inspiring more people to follow their own chorus “from chaos to art”.

This review appeared on AussieTheatre.com

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