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the swanmaidens: much more than men

Production Photography: Clare Molnar

WARNING: May involve dance, glitter and boys being boys.” says their Facebook events page and yeees, THE SWANMAIDENS does indeed have all that but more, much more and one very special, unique, exciting other thing.  The show has now finished its run at the Sydney Fringe but with luck we can expect more from new company Hunter & Sammler, this team and writer/director Luke Yager.  Because this was a cracker of show.  It was a fiercely male and ferociously sensitive production with mystery, great audio and performances that really bite the bullet.

We meet four men in worn khaki attire when they respond militarily to an urgency of klaxon call and red pulse with the violent donning of wall mounted gas masks and the aggressive waving of simulated weapons.  This, after a preshow bassy surround vibration on the audio track that really does your head in and after we have seen one of their number, a lost, broken boy surreptitiously hiding a big cardboard box.  It’s a wildly intriguing opening.  Sharing too much about the plot might spoil the enjoyment of a remount of the show, so suffice to say that these are men alone who will embrace swans and Tchaikovsky in an act of rebellion.

When I had the chance to chat with Yager after last night’s closing he said the idea for the show had grown from a conversation at the pub. This production has been developed with Assistant Director Stella Ye and the male cast from that initial discussion between Yager and Ye about whether men can perform Feminist theatre.  A lofty goal but this production, running at a tight 70 minutes, doesn’t belabour isms, didactic or feminist, but thrives on story and character.

Three of the cast, there is one apart, make a brilliant ensemble of players whose characters grab you and keep you right through our first meeting of these grunts.  Paul Whiddon as Siegfried/Zig brings a man with hidden depths behind the bravado amongst men.  At one stage he will ask after a hurt colleague with such a shocking demeanour outside his normal behaviour that we are absolutely aware of the hidden depths in this joker.  The light hearted banter which is reputed to relieve tension and bond soldiers is weaponised by complete prick Duke (Mathew Rope).  The changes for him during the play are enormous and Rope elides his character truthfully through several changes of heart.

Butt of their jokes is Shane Russon’s Bart.  An enigmatic person, the keeper of secrets, Russon’s creation is guarded and torn with a passivity that belies the turmoil within.  The fourth member of the unit is its leader.  A man apart, Grant, as played by Brendan Paul has all the martinet of his training and his own experience in his manipulation of the other three.  He has a sly but very distasteful ownership of their bodies and a knowing and explosive sense of purpose in his emotional manipulations. The words “gentle and loyal” seem like an insult as recognizable and relatable themes emerge.

Reinforced by terrific audio score from Angus Mills who begins with that insidious tremored preshow. Later the sounds will blur into an unrecognizability that could be bubbling or wings or distant fire and Mills has exceptional command of the morphing from abstract to real of the cygnets, from steel string to single note piano.  But leading towards the finale is where the music hits home with its greatest power and presence.  Bongos and woodblock vie and the maleness ascends again and the lion stands centrestage to deliver a homily.

Though the two scenes which climax the show did feel a bit wordy, there are points, narrative and thematic, to be made and Yager’s direction gives the power and trust over to his cast in the stillness and isolation of the staging.  Both story and intent have come a long way by then and the question around Feminist art has been responded to with sincerity, skill and considerable humour.

That is the very special thing about THE SWANMAIDENS.  The laughter.  The booming, joyous, ageless male laughter that encompasses the rows of seating.  In my experience it is such a rarity to hear that, even from my companion on the night, that I was thrilled by those elements of this production.  A glorious life-affirming aspect to a well created and produced show.  When I asked Yager what was next for the company, he expressed an interest in working with more women, always a good thing, but hopefully this particular work won’t go on the back burner because it really deserves a wider audience.

THE SWANMAIDENS [Facebook Event] from Hunter & Sammler [Facebook] played during the Sydney Fringe, 2018.


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