By Nicola Bennett
Lazarus represents the final contribution of Davie Bowie to the world of artistic expression. The result of a kismatic collaboration between Bowie and writer Enda Walsh gives the world Lazarus, a one act musical ode to everything Bowie. In its music and its execution, the production aims to give audiences a different glimpse into Bowie’s creative mind and his view on the human experience. Questions of love, loss, sexuality, death, hope and the limitations of the soul are there to be harshly examined and handed over to the audience to make sense of. Bowie did not bestow this production to audiences because he intends to makes the audience comfortable. It is a production that intends to make you feel unsettled and probed by its questions, which sets the audience up for a very specific type of viewing experience.
The show’s central character is Thomas Newton, whose only certain characteristic in this production is his critically tormented existence. Possible human, possible alien, Newton barely endures this world, sustained only by the memories of loves lost and the hope of eventually departing from this planet. His quest to leave his earthly existence behind him is the central driver of the show’s narrative, as he seeks an escape that can only be achieved by fleeing in a rocket ship or in the release of his own death. Accompanying Newton on his torturous trajectory are the voices - voices of hope, voices of reason, voices of destruction. Whether these voices come from actual beings or his own spiralling mind, it is their guidance and sabotage that teeters Newton at the brink of insanity.
The role of Thomas Newton is undertaken by Chris Ryan, who throws himself into this role with an intensity that for the most part lands as it should emotionally. A lot of the director Michael Kantor’s stage direction restricts Ryan’s movement to his character’s intoxicated stupor, reducing much of his movement to sprawling across beds, cowering on floors and staggering across stage while nursing a half bottle of gin. This limits the extent of his more powerful physical expression to shorter outbursts, which are successful at conveying the more overwhelming moments of his internal struggle. Ryan’s vocals are good - he is reliable in his execution and carries Newton’s emotional weight authentically with him throughout Bowie’s soundtrack. There is a sense at times that the performers (including Ryan) are trying to emulate Bowie’s signature tremulous style in their own performances, which feels unnecessary to include in what is already a performance that is heavily soaked in Bowie’s presence.
Newton’s mental destruction is orbited by a select few supporting characters, with Emily Milledge’s role of the Girl providing the dose of hopeful innocence that attempts to remedy Newton’s darkness. Milledge’s vocals are the stand-out in this production, with her rendition of “Life on Mars?” a genuine musical highlight for the evening. The other vocal achievement of note is Phoebe Panaretos’ rendition of “Changes”, whose character Elly is scrambling in her own emotional wreckage and recognises Newton as a fellow lost soul. Paneretos achieves a characterisation that is relatably flawed and raw, and at times thankfully draws the emotional attention away from Newton and his monotonous spiraling. It should be acknowledged that the romantic connection between Newton and Elly does feel forced at times, as though the story is waiting for the climactic moment where Newton eventually surrenders to his own loneliness and hungers for his lost love’s return. However, ultimately it is the supporting women in this production who give Newton hints of softness and fragility in his otherwise tough existence. Further recognition for the supporting cast goes to iOTA, the performer whose depiction of the murderous villain Valentine echoes everything that Thomas Newton is desperately trying to evade. Fear, violence, self-loathing, bursts of manic rage, all of Valentine’s attributes lures Newton into his own destruction and seeks to burn out all remaining hope of his escape. He is a perfectly unsettling presence and represents the worst of the human mind, made even more sinister when juxtaposed with the lightness and vivacity of the Girl. The remainder of the cast support well, however become lost at times in somewhat unnecessary contributions of choreography especially when positioned as a group behind the stage’s giant screen that divides the front and back of the stage.
The set design is minimalistic at first glance, with a towering framework of panels set up to face the audience throughout the show. The black dividers between the panels create an imprisoned effect for the protagonist, with Newton’s New York apartment windows serving simultaneously as his prison bars. The panels transition back and forth as projection screens from the outset of the show and throughout, flashing vibrant (and sometimes disconcerting) video throughout songs. This technical aspect of the set design is very effective in capturing Bowie’s eccentric and sometimes shocking relationship with the medium of music videos. However, the effect of having this projection simultaneously occurring with pivotal vocal performances means that the audience has their attention divided between the two stimuli. This means that the more intricate nuances of the performer’s number were often lost when in competition with the bright colours and rapid transitions of the film directly above them.
Fair warning should be given to those who are sensitive to darker themes - the constant sense of foreboding and Newton’s destructive internal dialogue may be triggering for some. It is an achievement that the show sustains this sense of darkness that is slowly closing in on Newton, and we feel as an audience that we are able to have a glimpse of that descent. However, the abstract approach and aggressive visual display that the show adopts keeps the authentic relatability of the characters at arm’s length, as though it is not expected that we as an audience will be totally immersed in the human story, but should instead also be dazzled by the complexity of its visual depiction and ambiguity of its premise. Bowie’s legacy radiates strongly in the production’s design and concept, and it encapsulates the unorthodox tempo of Bowie’s style. What is needed, and can perhaps still be accomplished in this run, is an execution that still properly connects us to the performers who are actually on stage, while acknowledging and honouring the abstract energy and icon behind the show. Experience David Bowie’s Lazarus during its limited run at Melbourne’s Arts Centre until the 9th of June.
Photo Credit: Jeff Busby
All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.