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junkyard opera in the tower

john bailey: four larks theatre at malthouse

Peer Gynt, 2010, Four Larks Theatre Peer Gynt, 2010, Four Larks Theatre
photo Zoe Spawton & Stephanie Butterworth

This ‘lost tribe’ atmosphere is a blessing and a curse—free from the anxiety of influence, the company has created works truly distinct from its peers, which can also suffer from infuriating flaws that could easily be remedied through broader collaboration. That’s why Four Larks’ recently announced residency at Malthouse Theatre is such an exciting prospect. In the past they’ve made striking theatre on the proverbial smell of an oily rag—with the input and resources Malthouse can provide, we may see the cross-fertilisation required for the next stage of this company’s growth.

The trio at the company’s core are Mat Diafos Sweeney, Jesse Rasmussen and Sebastian Peters-Lazaro. They met in California—Sweeney and Peters-Lazaro still hold US passports, while Rasmussen had travelled from Melbourne to study theatre at Berkeley. “We hung out in the Bay Area a little bit after school,” says Sweeney. “I met Jesse and started making some music together, then we fell in love and she sort of whisked me back to Melbourne. Then Bas came over a few months later to do our first show. We really started our theatre project in Melbourne.”

Each of the three takes on specific roles in the creation of their work. Sweeney and Rasmussen collaborate as writers and directors. Sweeney focuses on “the structural, dramaturgical and visual concepts” as well as “sequencing and scoring out the performance.” Rasmussen “is primarily responsible for the language itself, including lyrics both sung and spoken, and also works intimately with the actors on their individual trajectories.” Peters-Lazaro takes charge of all design components and “generating and realising moments of choreography.”

But in the early stages of each work’s development—the “dreaming period,” as Rasmussen puts it—these roles bleed into one another. “We develop all of the elements at the same time,” says Sweeney. “It’s not like we’ve ever had a script where we could show someone what it looks like just on paper. It’s about a visual concept in relation to a musical idea and really specific performers and location. None of the elements stand on their own, so they’re all being developed together.”

This extended period of preparation allows them to arrive at the rehearsal room as a united front, says Rasmussen. If asked, any one of the three could answer a question relating to a piece’s score, its costume concepts, the meaning of a line of text or the intention behind a moment of choreography. It helps that the trio live together and can hash out artistic arguments over the kitchen table rather than the heads of their performers.

This Cerberus-like creative partnership holds its own challenges for newcomers, says Peters-Lazaro: “at the start of a process it is confusing, especially for people who haven’t worked with us before, that there are three people who’re all shaping the work. But then by the end, just because of the scale we work in, we need all six of our arms.”

The scale of a Four Larks work is often its most astonishing aspect. Most feature dozens of actors and musicians; the design itself is consistently on a level of complexity unmatched by some of the country’s best-funded companies. In recent years the trio have begun describing their productions as “junkyard opera,” and the term is entirely apt. These are fully-fledged operas growing from the detritus of contemporary culture.

There’s another term that seems to encapsulate something of what Four Larks are about: folk. Not in the sense of the twee or naïve, though there may be some of that at times too. Rather, in a more thorough sense, the company’s various interests all seem driven by an obsession with communal narratives—folk music, folk tales, the very community they build by inviting so many artists to collaborate on each work. So far most of the company’s works have been adaptations of familiar stories (Orpheus, Peer Gynt, the myth of Undine) but, rather than attempting to locate the definitive version of each, it has been the overlapping of differing accounts that have fed the creative process.

Ben Pfeiffer, Luke Jacka, Undine, Four Larks Theatre Ben Pfeiffer, Luke Jacka, Undine, Four Larks Theatre
photo Zoe Spawton & Stephanie Butterworth
“The myths that reoccur,” says Peters-Lazaro. “In Undine, the idea that there’s some human creature-ish thing that comes from the water is something that comes up in multiple cultures throughout the world, so it’s interesting for us to look at something like that and explore why that is important. Even if it’s just by starting at a base with which everyone is familiar, we can talk about it in a more in-depth way without having to explain everything.” “We’re interested in talking about the why rather than the what or how,” says Sweeney. “We’re not necessarily interested in creating our own narrative, but in examining others and pulling them apart.”

This reappropriation is also what marks out every aspect of Four Larks’ design. Each set is meticulously constructed from discarded objects: “aesthetically, visually, it’s tied into the same conceptual element,” says Peters-Lazaro. “It’s using objects that have a history. It’s always an act of reappropriation. We’re interested in pretending and playing but no faking. The experience of the performance should be that everyone is hyper-aware that they’re playing at something.”

“It’s sort of an obsession with old things that have a resonance,” says Sweeney. “The set is not being built to look like something, it’s being built from things that are something being used for something else. Which is the same thing we’re trying to achieve with the performers as well, that they’re playing at something.”

In the Tower of the Malthouse next year the company will be tackling its latest object of folklore: The Plague Dances will address the many historical outbreaks of hysterical dancing which have struck communities from the medieval era onwards. “It’s not an adaptation but it’s definitely in the camp of material we’ve worked with before,” says Sweeney. “It’s an event that then gets immediately mythologised and co-opted by different groups, whether it’s the church or politically. It’s potentially a piece about this act of performance.” The residency will offer the company “a place to work in all the areas we’re excited to work, aesthetically and musically and conceptually, working with objects and building this elaborate, fake medieval kingdom.” With what Rasmussen calls their “little plague village up in the Tower” it seems as if the lost tribe is setting up camp in the heart of the capital.

Four Larks Theatre, The Plague Dances, writer Marcel Dorney, Tower Theatre, Malthouse, April 14-29, 2012. For the Malthouse 2012 Season go to

RealTime issue #106 Dec-Jan 2011 pg. 30

© John Bailey; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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