“Will you live forever? Are you young or old? Will you grow any more? Will you grow old?”
Children ask a lot of questions, driving their parents nuts with who? what? where? when? why? and how? This essence of youth and curiosity is the basis of the innovative new play When The Mountain Changed Its Clothing, from Germany’s leading composer and director Heiner Goebbels.
The abstract theatre production had its Australian premiere as part of the Melbourne Festival, showcasing the perfect pipes of 40 young women from the world-renowned Vocal Theatre Carmina Slovenia and blending harmonies and choreography to physically bring to life a coming-of-age story.
As my friend and I entered the State Theatre, Arts Centre, we were met with an odd sight. The stage was almost bare – in its rehearsal phase – with visibly taped linoleum floors, scaffolding and lighting rigs. As the lights dim an eerie voiceover penetrates the silence; “everything will be alright…”. The teenagers emerge from the back of stage, creeping hesitantly towards a dangerously high stack of upturned chairs. The cluster moves, staggered, towards the corner before a collective, piercing scream escapes their lips and they disperse, cowering and wielding chairs.
As the production gets underway, it becomes clear that the actors will assemble the stage as they progress; they are creating the space around them as their “characters” transition from childhood to adulthood. The girls alternate between movement pieces, spoken word and song, expressing myths and traits typical of growing up in broken-English and their native tongue, though some of it is unfortunately lost in translation.
The play is colourful too, with gorgeous retro costumes and quick-change acts. In one particularly impressive scene, the girls raise a projector and set up an L-shaped dining table, disappearing and remerging behind set pieces in new outfits, then carrying toys, and then in Barbie-blonde bobbed wigs.
The 1 hour, 20 minute show has a handful of memorable highlights like this. A call-and-response slab of dialogue is particularly delicious in its content. A pigtailed young girl (a la a brunette Pippi Longstocking) stands in front of the rest of the choir, initiating a passive aggressive back-and-forth dialogue about rights and wrongs. She plays ‘mum’ to the restless hoard of inquisitive teens, providing sweetly accented but frustrated answers to their exhausting onslaught of who? what? where? when? why? and how? questions. “Are you pissed off?” the probing group ask at one point, triggering a laughter tidal wave across the engrossed but sparse audience.
The unusual stage show mixes extracts from authors such as Marina Abramovic, Ian McEwan, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Gertrude Stein and Joseph von Eichendorff. The theatrical chorus ponder the meaning of life through quintessentially childlike musings, juggling the demands of naivety and maturity. The girls are delightful on-stage presences – such natural, normal performers with epically ethereal voices. The production takes a bit of time to warm up, but once you’re privy to the concept, pace and themes, the result is a organically grown theatrical event that thinks outside the box on every level.