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Son et Lumière: Home
Written and directed by Richard Huber

at First Church of Otago, Dunedin
From 20 Aug 2009 to 23 Aug 2009

Reviewed by Jonathan W. Marshall, 24 Aug 2009

The term 'son et lumière' emerged in 1950s France, with artists and festival directors hoping to realise the long awaited dream of a total, sensory synthesis of sound and light (synaesthesia) originally proposed by the likes of Alexander Scriabin, who had claimed that both light and sound were vibrations whose combined effects could lead one to ecstasy and new states of perception. Often employing so-called 'musique concrete' - sounds made by stretching, cutting and playing at different speeds, pieces of magnetic tape - these works aspired to bring avant-garde music to a general public in the form of 'soundscapes' matched by light shows and fireworks.

Writer/director Richard Huber's new work largely eschews this approach, to produce something perhaps better described as a poetic radio play supported by coloristic painting and projected lights from designer Martyn Roberts. The physical performances of the principal actors, Simon O'Connor and Barbara Power, are restrained and at times nearly static, their vocal presence filling the space, whilst broad, even-toned lights paint the wide, vertical walls which frame them at the altar of Dunedin's First Church.

Roberts' design is indeed a joy to behold, with the lighting coming directly at the walls, and glossing and spreading across three main surfaces: the two wings flanking the altar, plus the central arch above the performers which leads the eye up to the main rose window of the church. Again, although the title might lead audiences to expect a spectacular approach, Roberts has (one suspects as much due to pragmatic issues of budget and working in a heritage space) adopted a restrained mode. Colour mixing beyond green (yellow plus blue) is rare, and sparkling effects or highly directional, shaped lighting is extremely uncommon. Roberts is mostly content to provide deep, vivid, mono-tonal washes across the three vertical canvases at his disposal, producing a soft, lulling aesthetic, over and above one which might be said to articulate a narrative or even climaxes in a normal sense.

Similarly the music is well focused and historicist, rather than avant-garde (as in the old son et lumières), largely taking the form of quotations or new settings for choral works composed for the Presbyterian church or similar such materials well known to anyone (like myself) who once studies the 19th century Protestant hymns of Charles Wesley).

Huber's text is picaresque, and is focussed around the history of the building itself. The First Church is a major Dunedin landmark, established by the dissident Presbyterians who left Scotland to found this new Jerusalem and await the Final Judgement which would bear up the righteous of the Scottish Free Church movement upon the Bosom of Abraham. The denomination was fiercely anti-Catholic, anti-Papist and firmly against any sign, decoration or Popish flourish of art which might stand between the congregation and God. Huber includes an interesting debate over the merits of the commission of an organ for the First Church in the late 19th century, as such ornate musicality could either be seen as uniting the worshippers in their simple joy before God, or as a quasi-Catholic excess, in which the senses were falsely seduced away from the purity of prayer and the spirit.

These and other issues which occupied the minds of this religious community - notably the commissioning and building of First Church - provide much of the content. Almost in passing, Power notes that the relatively shortened aisle, as well as that of the aisles running down the left and right wings of the transept in the church's cruciform plan, produced a central space immediately before the altar of a grand scale. By bringing almost the whole congregation into this wide, vaulted space, the architect attempted to evoke the confraternal proximity and communion of the outdoor ceremonies which gave birth to the Free Church movement in Scotland in the early 1800s.

Huber's approach is poetic rather than educational, and even occasions for aggressive rhetoric, such as Free Church founder John Calvin's tirades against Papal excesses and the Catholic exaltation of the vessel of the Eucharistic chalice over that ineffable spiritual miracle which it contained, are played by O'Connor with remarkable restraint. The effect is more like hearing lapping of waves, or of voices deeply attenuated and rendered bloodless (albeit beautiful) by history, as they echo quietly out to us today.

The principal poetic theme of the work is that of home. Scotland was the home of these pilgrims, and - even though they looked towards a Millenarian future in which they, as God's new Chosen People, would cross their own dessert - they chose distant New Zealand as their new abode. As the actors intone several times, it was home, but not home.

Judged by its own criteria and achievements - as I have tried to do above - this is indeed a magnificent piece. It is skilled, well executed, and beautiful. Nevertheless, given that this work is being viewed as an act of historical remembrance, performed for the edification of Dunedin audiences, I cannot help being disappointed by this work.

History is not easy and it is not pleasant, though this show is. Indeed, one might have thought that in New Zealand, we knew how hard history is better than most. Only one of the many ways in which this piece fails to offer anything like what might be called a critique is the complete absence of Mâori in the work. One could argue that this is a play about the Scots, not the Mâori, but - as Huber's own preferred poetic focus of homeland and displacement immediately brings to mind - the Scots could not have been here without the Mâori having been moved on. Europeans could only make a home of this place by conquering its previous inhabitants, and making them the Jews of this new world (as Huber's last production, Hurai, examined.

Even the Presbyterians come off easy. The debates I cite above are mentioned, to be sure, but none of the richness - let alone the extremely deep, violent and at times literally bloody controversies - which such issues evoked in 18th and 19th century Scotland and New Zealand are mentioned. Calvin was not simply a religious figure. He was a politician: a politician on behalf of his flock. One cannot, nor should one, depoliticise the religious wars of Europe that underpin settlement here in New Zealand, let alone the way many of these controversies followed us here.

In short, while I admire and respect this project and consider it exemplary in its chosen form, I personally object to any attempt to allow poetry or beauty to marginalise important political and religious issues, even (or perhaps especially) if this is intended as a 'popular' work. If artists are to be historians, they must be aware that their role is not to sterilise and beautify history, but to remind audiences just how complex, bloody, violent, controversial, and tragic history really is. So Brecht and Sophocles would have had it, and so would I.
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