October 19, 2007

Theatre Adelaide


LyreBird : Tales of Helpmann

by Tyler Coppin

State Theatre Company

Of South Australia

Space Theatre

Adelaide Festival Centre

October 16. Until November 3.

Tickets $17 – $55.  Bookings BASS 131 246

It was in 1964, in The Display, the first fully home-grown work by the Australian Ballet, that choreographer Robert Helpmann introduced the dance of the lyrebird as a metaphor for Australian male attitudes. Now, in a welcome return, nine years after it premiered at the 1998 Adelaide Festival, comes LyreBird;Tales of Helpmann, Tyler Coppin’s wryly entertaining one-man frolic with the life, accomplishments and feathery flourishes of Helpmann himself.

Helpmann’s biography, rich in detail and in legend, is an ideal focus for a study of the prospects for the artist in Australia over much of the 20th century. Born in parochial Mount Gambier in 1909, the precocious Helpmann must have seemed like a Martian, or a replica of Oscar Wilde at the age of nine. But, with a mother more encouraging than Mrs Worthington and a bewildered father so determined  to kick-start his son’s “fancy dancing” career  that he contacted Anna Pavlova herself, Robert Helpmann had plenty of breeze in his wings. His move to Europe and subsequent career with Sadlers Wells and Margot Fonteyn was extraordinary – as was his confronting, and often controversial, return to cultural life in Australia in the 1960s.

Set in his dressing room at the interval for Don Quixote, a role directed by Nureyev that Helpmann played late in his life, Tyler Coppin’s perceptive, skittish and irreverent script has the hero tilting at a variety of windmills. Among them, his critics, the “monsters”, who – as he lasciviously purses – “were always either at my feet or at my throat, and never in between.” Wearing hieroglyphic eyeliner and a ton of bling, Coppin’s Bobby is a defiant mix of Quentin Crisp queer pride and a sensitive man still aghast at the ferocity of homophobia in Bondi in the 1920s. LyreBird is no idealization, the Robert Helpmann whose name is now linked to academies and awards, is portrayed as part Puck, part Poison Dwarf. His cruelties, well-known and remembered, are evident – especially to his protégé, James, whose career he discouraged – and his rampant ego is on full plumage display.

But, given expansive opportunity by director Adam Cook, with an unfussy set by Genevieve Blanchett and splendid lighting from Nigel Levings, Tyler Coppin also brings a droll wit and a raucous energy to the many lives of Robert Helpmann, dancer, choreographer, actor, director and enfant terrible – storming the citadels of Australian culture at a time when any sensible man would have kept his feathers to himself.

Murray Bramwell

The Australian, October 19, 2007, p.12.

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