Requiem For The 20th CenturyLeft - Isabella Dunwill (Cassandra). Cover - L-R – Alex Pinder, Isabella Dunwill and Simon Maiden

A theatrical tour through the 20th century – you'd surely have to be mad to attempt such a work! Well no, not really, just ready, willing and able to take a risk, to attract a multi-talented cast and crew, to select your events, and to weave the whole into a great story that engages your audience.  

Writer Tee O'Neill and the aptly named Theatre @ Risk have taken on this daunting task and carried it off with style, at least the first 50 years – at the end of the two and a half hour performance you are advised ... to be continued...  In the New Ballroom at the Trades Hall, a little hot and stuffy as a result of our unseasonable November weather, I was both relieved and disappointed. I'd been enthralled by the way in which they had dealt with the first half and I was curious to see how they handled the second, which I'm told we can expect later next year, but I also needed time to reflect on and absorb the emotional impact of this performance.

The performance opens with Charlie Chaplin's Smile playing, followed by a silent movie sequence with no dialogue and only surtitles on the screen at the back of the stage. Andre Jewson creates a wonderful Charlie Chaplin, getting the body language just right. (This is only one of nine roles he plays). The story is a classic one of an abandoned baby who, after some comic adventures, finds a loving home. The baby is Cassandra (Isabella Dunwill) and it is her love affair with Red (Angus Grant) that provides a personal grounding for the major world events and noted characters of the first half of last century.  

Red is an Australian (his full name is Edward) who enlists with the Lighthorse in WWI; Cassandra's parents are Charles (Alex Pinder) a wealthy Englishman who is married to Nina (Odette Joannides) a Russian related to the Romanovs. Through these characters O'Neill has been able to set the action in Russia, Austria, Germany, the UK, Egypt and Australia.  Along the way we become caught up in some of the shattering events of last century: two world wars, the Russian revolution, the Depression, the Spanish Civil War and the detonation of the first atomic bomb. We also meet some of the best known and loved (or hated) characters of the time: Queen Victoria, Marlene Dietrich, Dame Nellie Melba, Vera Lynn; Charlie Chaplin, Archduke Ferdinand, Hitler, Dali, Brecht, Lorca, Oscar Wilde and Walter Benjamin.

In addition to the two lead actors, there are four chorus members: Justyna Kiczor, Emma Lucas, Sean Louth-Robins and Andrea McCannon and six actors who take anywhere between six and nine roles each, among them Jude Beaumont, Simon Maiden and Adrian Snodgrass. As you may imagine, the sweep of this work and the number of characters could easily result in a very episodic performance. However with the strong narrative created by Tee O'Neill and the skilful direction of Chris Bendall the vignettes flow together well.  Sometimes the central characters speak to each other in person, sometimes via letters connecting us to events on the other side of the world. There are iconic songs of the period, archival footage and a dense soundscape (Kelly Ryall), all of which, along with the energy of the performers, work to smooth the transitions.    

The action never flags. There are moments of deep emotion and there is humour.  I particularly enjoyed the scene where Picasso, Dali and Lorca sit in a cafe arguing about art and the Spanish civil war. Marlene Dietrich and Vera Lynn sing for us courtesy of Jude Beaumont; Lotte Lenya and Dame Nellie Melba make an appearance and Andre Jewson shows that he is no mean hand on the keyboard.  

In the flat space that is the New Ballroom, a raised area has been created centre stage which is well used as a beach, a vantage point to watch the passage of the 1906 comet and a wharf. The far corners of the area are a jumble of memorabilia from the time, including a HMV wind up gramophone.

As Kirrily Brentnall and Chris Bendall comment, Requiem for the 20th Century is unquestionably the most ambitious production Theatre @ Risk has undertaken. It provides audiences with an intriguing and absorbing overview of the last century and by introducing the story of the lovers Cassandra and Red ensures that the big events and larger than life characters are given a personal dimension. That such a large sprawling work succeeds so well is a credit to all involved.

Theatre @ Risk presents
The World Premiere of
By Tee O’Neill

Venue: New Ballroom, Trades Hall | Cnr Lygon & Victoria Sts, Melbourne
Dates: Fri 17th Nov – Sun 3rd Dec 2006
Times: Tues – Sat @ 8pm | Sun @ 5pm
Tickets: $15 - $27
Bookings: or Easytix - 03 9639 0096

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