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Sydney Festival preview

Vision and remembrance

Keith Gallasch talks to Max Lyandvert

Max Lyandvert Max Lyandvert
Max Lyandvert is keen to talk about the ideas that drive his vision for his new work for the 2003 Sydney Festival, Close Your Little Eyes, but not so eager to give away details about what his audience will experience in the theatre. At the end of the interview he offers a few intriguing clues. There will be chairs: chairs you can’t sit in; chairs that have had lives; chairs from many places. The audience will be moved around a little. There will be projections. Things will happen above and below. A string quartet will play from the 4 corners of The Studio. Singer-performer Melissa Madden Gray will fly. Her voice will be processed: “she’s partly based on Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History.” Clearly this is a work that will reorient its audience’s notion of theatre as part of Lyandvert’s agenda to have them join him in re-thinking our cultural heritage.

Publicised as “a homage to the suffering of innocent children in time of war”, this work for a choir of 16 children, female singer and string quartet, finds its particular impetus in how we think about the Holocaust. The show is not a performance about that event, but for Lyandvert it is central to how we deal with the unspeakable, how it is represented and remembered...or forgotten.

Composer and director Lyandvert has been a musician all his life. However, the desire to become a theatre director and to synthesize that role with his particular musical aspirations and philosophical concerns has been realised through an interesting set of associations and events. Close Your Little Eyes represents the first stage of that synthesis.

Lyandvert was born in Russia and migrated here with his family when he was 6. Although bored with piano lessons as child and, he admits, too lazy, he nonetheless gravitated to fellow musicians at school. The focus in his teenage years was at first on rock music but with improvisation becoming a dominating interest. Lyandvert grew up with musician friends Oren Ambarchi and Robbie Avenaim: “In a way we taught each other music...Through the extremes we saw that rock and jazz were connected...We took in Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor and the whole world of free jazz...and Cage...and we formed the What is music festival.”

However, a chance development had long before opened another, intially non-musical path for Lyandvert. “A friend was doing an acting course at the old Drama Studio in Darlinhurst and I picked up a flyer about a one year diploma director’s course. Because I’d been overseas I had most of that year to kill before I could get into university. I got passionately involved and did much more than required. Soon after I started a company with some of the actors I had befriended and we did really weird work, Grotowski-inspired, Artaud-inspired experimental stuff. We even did a show called Theatre of Cruelty in 1989. A number of directors like Neil Armfield, Lech Makiewicz and Rodney Fisher came to see it. In 1993 I was directing a play at Downstairs Belvoir for Makiewicz’s company, Auto da Fe, a version of Dostoevskys’s Notes from the Underground. Rodney was directing a version of The Idiot at the Crossroads Theatre as a cooperative venture and he asked me to be his assistant director. A week before we opened he had a brainwave about all this underscoring he wanted, all the way through the production with loops of contemporary music by Gorecki, Reich, Glass, Pärt. I said, “I’m a musician, I can help you with this. I haven’t got much to do as assistant director.” It all went well: Lyandvert had commenced a succesful career in sound design especially with Fisher, then Legs on the Wall, Kate Champion, Benedict Andrews and others.

However, sound designing and composing for theatre was “becoming obsessively a career...and stressful” for Lyandvert, “and I started getting a little frustrated that my directing was taking a back seat.” As important as his directing impulses were there was also a feeling of unfinished business with regards to his music. “I went to New York for 6 months for mostly musical reasons. I got to know Shelly Hirsch, hung out at the Knitting Factory It was then that I discovered the Wooster Group and Richard Foreman and other work. It had a double effect. It rekindled a desire to compose but, more than that, now I was seeing performance fused with other artforms in an unconventional way. It rekindled my hunger for directing. I wanted to direct works that I conceived. New York opened me to Heiner Goebbels and Heiner Muller, Wilson and Glass and music theatre where music is a core element rather than background...”

Lyandvert found himself especially attracted to the work of Richard Foreman. His excellent production of Foreman’s My Head was a Sledghammer at Belvoir St Downstairs (2001) achieved some of Lyandvert’s dreams for a synthesis of his work, though he was still working with someone else’s script. While working on ...Sledghammer, Lyandvert started a Masters Degree at the School of Theatre, Film & Dance at UNSW. His studies, he says, are integral to the work he is doing now and for the next few years. Some key inspiration has come from the Stefan Heim novel, The King David Report, a satire on East German censorship that, at the same time, speculates on the origins of the Bible and how we establish cultural fundamentals, in this case the Judeo-Christian tradition that pervades Western life.

At the same time Lyandvert was taken by artists like Romeo Castelluci (see page 4), Daniel Liebeskind (the architect of Berlin’s Jewish Museum) and the composer Olivier Messiaen, all of whom respond to received culture very personally but also very systematically. Of Castelluci he says, “He takes theosophical knowledge and uses it as a structure through which he can express his concepts-—through a sound, through a light, the use of the Kabbalah and it will be consistent with his floorplan, movement and everything else in his production.” Inspired by these and other artists, Lyandvert is creating a trilogy of 3 works, “not connected in a narrative way and not all are performances”, designed to be presented eventually in the course of one day. Part 1 will be about the establishing of our culture, Part 2 about representation and Part 3 about faith. Close Your Little Eyes is part 2 and will be seen ahead of the other works in its Sydney Festival premiere.

Although it deals with difficult material, Lyandvert says that Close Your Little Eyes will not be an occasion for despair. “Like Castelluci’s Genesi or walking through Liebeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin, you don’t feel that you’ve seen Auschwitz. You walk out believing that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. There is hope, as hard as it is to nail it down.” Not surprisingly then it excites Lyandvert that his work is premiering in a festival celebrating on stage, in film and in conference, the works of Samuel Beckett with Lyandvert himself working on the sound design for Benedict Andrews’ production of Endgame for the Sydney Theatre Company.

Sydney Festival 2003, Close Your Little Eyes director, composer Max Lyandvert, performers Melissa Madden Gray, FourPlay, Sydney Children’s Choir, designer Gabriela Tylesova, lighting Mark Pennington; The Studio, Sydney Opera House, Jan 20-25, 2003

RealTime issue #52 Dec-Jan 2002 pg. 10

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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