Review: WATERSHED : The Death of Dr Duncan at Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre

Review by Lisa Lanzi

Watershed noun /ˈwɔt̮ərˌʃɛd/ an event or a period of time that marks an important change


This oratorio is a watershed in itself, a shining jewel in the 2022 Adelaide Festival programme and a joint commission between Adelaide Festival, Feast Festival and State Opera South Australia. Alongside presenting partner Adelaide University the work is an Australian exclusive and a world premiere bringing together a phenomenal creative team : Composer & Orchestrator Joe Twist, Co-Librettists Alana Valentine & Christos Tsiolkas, Director Neil Armfield, Conductor/Musical Director Christie Anderson and Choreographer Lewis Major. Add to this a dozen accomplished musicians in the pit, the glorious Adelaide Chamber Singers and several remarkable featured performers with expert creatives on design, sound, staging and lighting.

As the curtain rose, a palpable sense of both anticipation and reverence for this re-telling of the well-known and tragic story emanated from the audience. At curtain up we were treated to a symmetrical vision, choristers divided at each side with their music stands, a large centred screen perpendicular to a floating pontoon-like platform and a dark, shallow pool of water stretched across the front of the stage. The singers began listing dates, interrupting each other like an argument around what happened when while a single male body harnessed to a cable began to descend from beyond the lighting rig. As the male chorus moved onto the central platform singing “… we thought faggots floated” the haunting image of the descending figure contorted, inverted and spun slowly as if floating in water, or resisting a gallows rope. The remarkable Mason Kelly was the solo dancer displaying admirable control, flexibility and strength in equal measure, creating a tense, uneasy vision.


The projection screen variously shows softened, faded aspects of the River Torrens environment (Karrawirra Parri) overlaid at times with newspaper headlines and black and white portraits of major players in the tragedy of Dr Duncan’s untimely 1972 death, or flowing water or rising air bubbles. White surtitles also appeared at the top of the screen and although the songs were in English, being able to perceive the written words added another layer to the outrage, shock and sorrow as the tale unfolded. Various combinations of soloists and male or female groups took centre stage as the work progressed to represent personalities or crowds.


In fine voice, and with his superior acting skill, Mark Oates featured as both Dr Duncan and former Premier Dunstan. Pelham Andrews, an astonishing bass-baritone, gave life to Mick O'Shea, a Cop and a snide Lawyer. Ainsley Melham as Lost Boy brought the story to life both in song and spoken text and through tender choreographed interactions with dancer Mason Kelly. Melham’s presence was the unifying element between the litany of revealed facts, the deep emotional content, the narrative and the music. His character wove insights and facts

throughout the performance which spanned the timeline from 1972 until 2002, when the original Scotland Yard report was made public. Within this period, inquests were held, charges were laid and repealed, accusations and gossip were bandied about, court cases were called then abandoned, politicians weighed in yet no justice was ever dispensed. On the other side, the watershed event of Dr Duncan’s death was a catalyst enabling changes in law so that homosexuality was eventually de-criminalised and inspired, in part, Adelaide's first gay pride march held on Saturday 15 September 1973.


While coalescing decades of fact, emotion, fear, hatred, violence and momentous shifts in law and public acceptance, collaborators Alana Valentine & Christos Tsiolkas have found a way to imbue their words (even the explicit ones) with utter beauty, hope, solace and awareness; however the anger and grief is not lessened but observed in gleaming counterpoint. Fused with the juxtaposition of angelic and dissonant harmonies in Twist’s complex compositions the story, in sacred oratorio fashion, becomes a heightened, poetic and ecstatic memorial to tragedy and some triumph. Valentine and Tsiolkas state “…In writing Watershed for performance, we have cherished the hope that history is most potent when it is experienced in the ecstasy of heart and mind and body, when it is shared communally and when we bring our souls and our senses together in a theatre.”

The oratorio form is traditionally based on sacred subjects and the final scene is reminiscent of Michelangelo’s Pietà followed soon after by an ascension. Lost Boy cradles the dancer/Duncan figure as the full chorus intone “your murderers walk through the world without blame”. Back in harness and rope, the dancer begins a long, slow departure, skyward. The final song is an homage to what love is… or could be, and as the figure reaches a high point, the music fades and the curtain falls.


My thoughts were churning as I left the theatre and walked the path overlooking the River Torrens, full of shadow in the late hour. I suspect many others in the audience will ponder this theatrical experience in the days to come.

Images Supplied