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Max Sharam, The Hanging Of Jean Lee Max Sharam, The Hanging Of Jean Lee
photo Ponch Hawkes
It’s hard to decide whether this collaboration between Andrée Greenwell, Jordie Albiston and Abe Pogos is a fantastical chimera or clambering Frankenstein’s monster. It’s certainly a thing of many parts that don’t always hang together, yet are often terrifically powerful in their own right.

It employs devices from a huge range of forms—documentary theatre, music theatre, mixed media, concert and installation—to relate the story of the last woman hanged in Australia. The combination of styles means that the narrative itself can slip from compelling investigative account to allusive poetry to the tawdry tackiness of TV’s Underbelly, even combining all three in the same instant. The video work, especially, which frequently re-enacts the unfolding drama, is surprisingly literal when juxtaposed with the richness of the score.

We certainly learn a lot. Jean Lee’s life from childhood to that final fatal fall is given a good canvassing, and the verse biography by Jordie Albiston from which the libretto is adapted (by both Albiston and Pogos) is a surprising combination of faithful biography and canny lyricism. Lee’s misadventures saw her falling into a world of prostitution and blackmail that culminated in the murder of an elderly bookmaker in the company of several other low-rent crims. The presentation of her downfall alternates between clinical coolness, moving pathos and garish fascination.

Greenwell’s compositions are an evocative almanac of genres, ranging from torch song to Eastern European-style jazz to Tin Pan Alley numbers. Hugo Race, Jeff Duff and Simon Maiden provide three very distinct and contrasting voices, with Race especially delivering the kind of dark and dirty textures that serve this bleak territory well. Max Sharam’s vocals are a fine fit as Lee’s resurrected stage self but the performer occasionally dropped lines during the Melbourne season, making it at times difficult to sense what the work should really be like in finished form.

It’s also difficult to know what the work’s makers themselves make of Jean Lee, who was executed in 1951. By almost entirely refraining from judgment of its central figure they limit the pity we might feel for Lee, or the horror at the murder of a maybe-but-maybe-not innocent. This may be deliberate, but the intent behind the work’s overall ambiguity is itself obscure. It may be that the concert setting is itself a potent alienation device, in the Brechtian sense, and the work never aims at the kind of realism that might dupe us into putting too much faith in the veracity of the tale’s telling.

But that distancing effect does allow us the space to relish what is a sophisticated and very enjoyable song cycle, several excellent performances and some writing of much merit. If any of it occurs at the expense of Jean Lee, at least there doesn’t seem to be anyone left who would care to defend her.

The Hanging Of Jean Lee, composer, image director Andrée Greenwell, libretto Jordie Albiston, Abe Pogos, audio Michael Hewes, lighting Neil Simpson’ Arts House, North Melbourne Town Hall, December 7-8

RealTime issue #119 Feb-March 2014 pg. 47

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

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