Theatre review: Die Winterreise

by **

Dear Dad

Some say the world will end in fire

Some say in ice……..Robert Frost

In a strange and subtle way, Matthew Lutton’s Die Winterreise (The Winter Journey) brings to mind Frost’s resonating dichotomous lines.

Nevertheless, this production by Perth-based Lutton that premiered in WA State Theatre Centre in April this year can hardly be less sweeping or more remotely cosmic. Turning its back on the outside world, the play folds itself into the constricting inner universe and mental landscape of one solitary figure.

An elderly man (George Shevtsov) is preparing an evening meal in a grubby contemporary kitchen somewhere in Australia that is sweltering under its summer heat. The gramophone is playing. Strains of Franz Schubert’s Der Leiermann (The Organ Grinder) crackle jerkily through the steamy air. Soaking up the melancholic melody, the man falls unwittingly into a halting reverie. Unsettled, he rushes to turn the gramophone off — only that, the music does not stop.

Here, pianist Alister Spence displaces the scratchy vinyl with a clear and crisp live rendering of the song cycle by one of 19th century’s greatest composers. Arguably, Schubert’s Winterreise is what has perpetuated for centuries Wilhem Mueller’s 24-part poetry, after which Lutton has named his highly original conception.

With stirring and sensual virtuosity, Paul Capsis sings Mueller’s heart-rending lines — an improvised selection of 14 from the 24 parts — in the man’s elderly mind. So, with seamlessness and dexterity, Lutton has extracted the internal space of Shevtsov’s character to play out his psychological drama on The Malthouse Merlyn Theatre stage.

The opening song tells of a wanderer who arrives at a village in the month of May and falls in love with the daughter of the family with whom he comes to stay. He is led to believe his love is requited but soon learns she will marry a wealthy suitor. Winter has arrived but he feels compelled to go. After leaving a farewell message for his beloved on the door, the wanderer starts his trudge on The Winter Journey.

It is hard not to make the jump from fiery-hot Australian summer to icy-cold Austrian winter seem unsudden, but Adam Gardnir’s skilful set cleverly links the two. As part of the theatrical unities that fuse external and internal worlds, green leaves falling in the suburban backyard in the former are deftly replaced by snowy flakes raining on the entire stage of the latter.

As Capsis contrasts the wanderer’s burning tears with the wintry chill, raging storms with the fresh new world, the elderly man sees something resembling his younger self (James O’Hara) appear in his consciousness. Unable to close his past off with shutters or shake him away with distraction, Shevtsov’s character wrestles with this writhing ghost replete with crumpled passion, unrealised promise, regret, anguish and guilt — depicted by O’Hara’s remarkable physical vocabulary in his dance movements that are at once fluid and jolting, like a marionette manipulated by a grieving soul.

Shevtsov plays the protagonist with vivid poignancy. Churning with pain, he lurches from wall to wall, slamming the windows shut one moment and then throwing them open the next, crying out and gasping for air.

Lutton’s direction is as subliminally engaging as it is scalpel-sharp. He draws the audience into the modest kitchen with the pungent smell of sizzling onions before disgorging them into the character’s inner-scape. Still, the too-long dance repertoire required of O’Hara becomes the stuff of hallucination and inevitably exhausts any amount of goodwill.

The later scene when the elderly man arrives to embrace his past and reveal his tale is as moving an outcome as one could hope for. Crippled by survivor’s guilt, otherwise, he may not have perished in fires (with his family that fateful day), but he would have likely cracked (without them) in icy pain.

Bookending the production with The Organ Grinder, Lutton alludes to eventual death. It is not for us to know how the man’s world will end. We only know that Die Winterreise has granted him a reprieve — if not by tempering the fires, then by thawing the ice.