I have been scared about writing this review ever since I saw Poppea two weeks ago. This is because I didn’t really love it. I mean I enjoyed it, was glad I’d seen it, thought the performances were mostly of a great standard, but I left the theatre, not that bothered overall. Normally not loving a show is not that big a deal, and in fact can make writing a review easier. It can be hard to write a review of a show you loved without sounding sycophantic (a crime I am certainly guilty of, and one I expect to commit again when I review “Once and for all…” in the coming days). The difference with this production is that a) it was a Kosky, and b) EVERYONE seems to have loved it, from theatre critics, to my fellow undergrads, to my friends who I generally consider a good indicator of the fabled “general public”. It’s never easy being in the minority of opinion on a show; it makes you wonder what it was everyone else saw that you didn’t. When the show is directed by Barrie Kosky, Australia’s very own theatrical auteur, who occasionally returns from his post in Europe to offer Australia fresh insight into his genius, well let’s just say the stakes are somewhat higher. For one, no young theatre practitioner wants to be aligned with David Williamson…
Thus I have spent a lot of time trying to figure out exactly why I didn’t engage with this work. The first problem I came across is that I simply don’t like opera that much. This perhaps a somewhat naïve statement, after all, Poppea is only the third Opera I’ve seen, although I’ve listened to quite a lot of operatic music, my father used to be an opera singer and I grew up with classical music around me. Also, the operas I have seen have been of quite a high standard. When I was travelling in 2006 I saw Carmen performed at the Vienna State Opera House. It’s a classic and was performed by some amazing singers, but I found it long and uninteresting. I got excited at the famous songs (I was the operatic equivalent of that annoying guy at concerts who only knows the singles) but the production as a whole failed to have any great effect on me. I think the problem with this opera was that it was so foreign to me. The music, the costumes, the acting style, none of it resonated. However, that was a pretty straight opera, an attempted “faithful” reproduction of a classic. Poppea was not. I figured that if anyone was going to inspire my interest in the form it would be Kosky, but unfortunately it was not the case.
My second main frustration was the text itself. I’m just not that interested in these ancient affairs. What’s more, the opera had been cut in such a way that for a long time the specifics of the story were quite hazy. But I suppose the story’s not really what’s important is it? Not in any sort of Aristotelian “we must have catharsis for it to be good theatre” sort of way anyway. It’s about what Kosky does with images and how he makes you feel right? Which is I guess why I was really disappointed. When I saw Kosky’s Tell-Tale Heart, and Women Of Troy, I felt things. I had feeling thrust upon me. Those works demanded my engagement, bodily, and I think that’s what was meant to happen with Poppea. It was certainly a very bodily work. One could say it was completely concerned with the physicality of the performers. If a character felt something, we saw it physically enacted, from Poppea playing air guitar, to Drusilla singing whilst on her tiptoes, not to mention all the sex. But none of this really did anything to me. There were definitely moments where I appreciated the craft of the actors, but I was rarely overwhelmed. I think this is partially because I was pretty much as far back as you could be. Perhaps if I had been closer to the stage the show’s physical nature would have had a stronger impact on me. Although at times I found the highly physical style of performance quite annoying. I simply thought Ruth Brauer-Kvam who played Drusilla was over-acting, and there were numerous other moments, particularly in the first half, that I felt lacked sincerity.
For all this negativity, there were things I adored. Kyree Kvam’s voice was tremendous, possibly the best singing I have ever heard, certainly in any recent history. His rendition of “So In Love” was jaw-dropping. Which brings me to my favourite aspect of the production – the Cole Porter songs. Most times they were used, I found them absolutely revealing, bringing out new meanings in the songs themselves and in the relationships of the characters. The strangling that accompanied “So In Love” was truly unsettling. As many a commentator has said, this show has changed the way many people will listen to Cole Porter. It was during these numbers that I felt most closely connected to the work, that I felt the tension coming off the stage. I’ve considered the possibility that this was simply because of the language barrier, that because in these moments I wasn’t being distracted by the surtitles I was better able to give myself over to them, but I don’t think it was that simple. I feel it was in these moments that Kosky was able to delve deeper into the action than the libretto otherwise allowed and find material that was genuinely surprising.
I found the second half superior to the first in its image work, which was certainly aided by the back walling lowering to reveal a wall of mirrors. This gave the stage new depth and a sense of openness, allowing the actors nowhere to hide. The final images of both acts were also fantastic, and the way that Kosky created them was beautiful. Before each ending he filled the stage with performers, only to remove almost all of them leaving us with a stunning stage picture as the curtain fell. At the end of the first it was Seneca’s corpse flopping awkwardly out of the bath that was his home, and for the second it was Poppea and Nero, sitting side by side as rulers of the Empire, now without need for physical affection. They were both chilling.
So what do we have in the end? A play that I quite liked elements of, but overall wasn’t that affected by - not exactly an odd night out at the theatre really. But I guess what makes it different and so frustrating is the weight of expectation I brought with me into the theatre. Barrie Kosky is an incredible director. His understanding of the power of music is second to none in the Australian theatre scene, and I found his productions of the Tell-Tale Heart and the Women Of Troy absolutely fascinating. As well as my experience of these two shows, Poppea had received absolutely glowing reviews from some of the harshest critics I know. I went into the theatre ready for something awe-inspiring, and came out largely disappointed.